ANCHORAGE - In the rural villages that dot the flat, treeless wetlands of the lower Yukon River, as many as half the residents are children.
It's a phenomenon borne out by the latest census figures, which show the region, known as the Wade Hampton Census Area, has a median age of 20 - the lowest of all the census areas in the United States.
The area, twice the size of Massachusetts, consists of 13 villages with 7,028 residents. Nearly 95 percent of those living in the area are Yupik Eskimos.
Mike Hull, principal of the school in Russian Mission, says Yupik culture has traditionally prized large families.
"The whole community is always ready to accommodate more kids," said Hull, who has worked in the region for 15 years.
"If a woman is pregnant and already has four or five kids and has a friend who doesn't have any, during her pregnancy, she may promise that child to the friend. Kids brag about having two moms. Having a child when you're not married does not bear any stigma," he said.
Mary Immamak, mayor of the village of Emmonak, says children are valued in Yupik culture.
"Your children are your treasures," said Immamak, 63, who has five grown children and, with her husband, is raising two of their 17 grandchildren.
But the region's youth contributes to its poverty. The Wade Hampton area is the poorest in the state. There is no regional hub city, and jobs in the villages are scarce.
"You have a bigger percentage of the population that is not in the labor force. When you have this dependency factor, that certainly can affect poverty," said Neal Fried, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor and Economic Development.
In 1997, 39 percent of the region's residents lived in poverty, compared with 11.2 percent statewide. Per capita income in 1998 was $12,684 - 54 percent below the Alaska average and 53 percent below the national average.
The cash economy in the area is relatively small. Many families subsist on salmon, moose and waterfowl they harvest themselves.
The region's growing population and lack of economic opportunity could pose a problem as the young people grow up.
"When you look into the future, you wonder," said Fried. "They'll all be moving into the workforce at the same time in an area where work isn't plentiful."
Hull, the principal in Russian Mission, agrees there's not much opportunity for his students.
"That's the hard part. There's not a lot to do beyond school," Hull said.
Several other Alaska census areas were among the youngest of the more than 3,100 census areas in the United States. They include:
The Northwest Arctic Borough, with a median age of 23.9, ranked 15th.
Bethel, with a median age of 25.3, ranked 26th.
The North Slope Borough, with a median age of 27, ranked 48th.
Nome, with a median age of 27.6, ranked 55th.
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