Are Children an Endangered Species in Urban Areas?

By Art Rodgers

The classic problem of many science fields is you can only weigh something if you stop it, or you can determine where it’s going, but then you can’t weigh it.  Fortunately, this is less of a problem with demographic data where you can measure where it’s been and measure where it is now and at least forecast where it’s going.  Why is it then many fail to take advantage of this? Last month an article has made the claim that children are disappearing from urban areas and others have picked up on it.  The assertion is based on data from one point in time; the 2010 US Census.  Their conclusion?  Cities are unfriendly toward children and what is more, cities are not doing enough about it.

First, let’s expand the data to more than a single year.  Nationally children are becoming a smaller percentage of the population, from 24.0 percent in 2010 to 23.5 percent in 2012; so it is only natural that dense urban areas reflect that trend as well.  But wait!  Half of the cities listed below didn’t!  They actually increased their percentage of children, and even San Francisco with its astronomical housing prices was able to maintain its current percentage.

Population Under 18 years

  United States

24.0%

23.5%

Rank Municipality

2010 Census

2012 ACS 1-yr

1 San Francisco city, CA

107,524 (13.4%)

13.4%

2 Seattle city, WA

93,513 (15.4%)

15.3%

3 Pittsburgh city, PA

49,799 (16.3%)

16.1%

4 Washington City, DC

100,815 (16.8%)

17.3%

5 Boston city, MA

103,710 (16.8%)

17.3%

6 Urban Honolulu CDP, HI

58,727 (17.4%)

17.3%

7 Miami city, FL

73,446 (18.4%)

18.8%

8 Portland city, OR

111,523 (19.1%)

19.2%

9 Atlanta city, GA

81,410 (19.4%)

18.4%

10 Minneapolis city, MN

77,204 (20.2%)

20.7%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey (ACS)

Second, it’s true that two data points do not a trend make, so let’s investigate why this percentage of children is increasing in these cities and estimate if it will continue.  I use Washington, DC as an example.  In DC’s case, between 2000 and 2010 it was one of the top cities for attracting recent college graduates due to the combination of growing tech and federal job opportunities.  This is probably true for other cities where tech, finance and other industries were growing.  Well it’s only natural that these young professionals who migrated as singles met, hooked up and guess what happened next.

What has changed in this age old story?  In the past, those new young families moved to the suburbs largely because of the poorly performing urban schools.  In the case of the District of Columbia, Boston and a few other cities, what may be responsible for reversing this trend is the move toward universal free public pre-school for three and four year olds.  Not only does this save young professional families upwards of $20,000 per year per kid in daycare costs, it introduces them to the public/charter school system, which helps to change their perception of the schools.  This has created a wave of middle-class children diversifying the public schools while their parents have networked and brought their collective political clout to improve the schools even further.

The private sector in DC has also seen the shift in the market and responded by adding baby happy hours and children’s cultural and athletic opportunities to go along with all the other great children’s activities that are available in DC.

The change in the percent of households with children under the age of 18 has also reflected the shift, moving from 19.3 percent in 2010 to 20.3 percent in 2012.  The DC Office of Planning (OP) believes the shift is strong enough and sustainable that their official ten-year forecast through 2020 includes the number of children under the age of 18 increasing by as much as 50,000.  This would push the number of households with children to approximately 25.0 or 26.0 percent by 2022, but only require about 20% of single-family housing to flip from older/childless households to these new families.

The District’s housing market has also been impacted.  According to Zillow.com, over the past two years prices have grown three times as fast per year for three bedroom units (18 percent per year) as for 1-bedroom units (5 percent per year).  DC’s housing is already very expensive, and many single-family row houses are being split into smaller units for the large numbers of singles, but the $20,000 savings in daycare translates into some serious purchasing power for those who have the means to leverage it.  This of course has the potential to exacerbate the displacement of lower income families in many of the District’s neighborhoods, but the city has also embarked on an ambitious goal of 10,000 new affordable units by 2020 and recently dedicated $187 million dollars for affordable housing to reach that goal.

Urban schools and housing costs certainly make it challenging to raise a family in a city, and cities can do more to make it easier, but I can personally attest through my investigation of the data and my own experiences as an urban parent that, at best, these recent blogs see the glass half full.  Time will tell, but it certainly looks like many cities, including Washington, DC, are setting the table for families with children by improving public and charter school performance; offering universal pre-kindergarten, revitalized public libraries, schools, playgrounds, parks and recreation centers; providing increasingly convenient neighborhoods throughout the city with services and retail in most communities; and creating lots of transportation choices that help families access all the city has to offer.

Art Rodgers is the Senior Housing Planner at the Office of Planning. The opinions expressed in this post belong solely to Art Rodgers and should not be construed as the official opinion of the DC Office of Planning.

One thought on “Are Children an Endangered Species in Urban Areas?

  1. Does OP have child-age population estimates for neighborhoods or citywide that are more recent or different than the 2010 Census or 2012 ACS estimates?

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