I’m afraid that Eric’s recent debunking of the “Seattle is hostile to kids” myth is just the leading edge of a tidal wave.  Early next year the US Census will release its 2010 population counts—and the numbers will likely show, yet again, that big Northwest cities don’t have as many kids as suburbs and rural areas. And that, in turn, means that we should all brace for another round of hand-wringing about how “unfriendly” Northwest cities have become to families with kids.  Blogs will buzz, op-ed writers will grump, and online cognoscenti will grumble and whine—and each pundit will point to his or her own pet issue, ranging from cultural malaise to recent policy blunders, as the explanation for why families have been forced to flee from the big city.

Don’t believe a word of it.

It’s true that Northwest cities—Seattle in particular—don’t have a whole lot of children, compared with the region as a whole. But that’s been true since at least 1960, and probably longer.  Cultural and policy shifts over the last decade have absolutely nothing to do with it: the child gap between Northwest cities and their surrounding areas started well before JFK’s inauguration, and has persisted largely unchanged for decades.

Washington vs. Seattle KidsTake a look at the chart to the left, pulled together using census data from previous decades, plus more recent estimates.  The y-axis (the vertical one) shows kids under 18 as a share of the total population.  And for decade after decade, Seattle has had fewer kids than the state as a whole.

A closer look at the data shows something even more interesting:  the “child gap” between Seattle and the rest of the state widened fastest during the 1960s and 1970s.  Since 1980, the gap has remained pretty steady. And if anything, the recent numbers suggest that it’s narrowed slightly in recent years—which is consistent with Eric’s finding that Seattle has seen a relative boom in the under-10 set over the last decade.

So consider this a preemptive strike: if anyone tries to sell some snake oil about “family-hostile policies” that “pushed families out of the city,” you should feel free to tell them to hush up and look at some data for once.

  • My sense is that the “cities are unfriendly to families” meme is largely a holdover from folks who remember how many kids the city had in the 1960s and 1970s.  Now that they’re older and they don’t see as many kids around, they wonder what happened—and assume that their current pet peeve about the city must have made families with kids move away.

    But what really happened? The biggest changes were demographic, particularly the deflation of the baby boom and the steady growth in life spans, both of which reduced the share of kids in the population as a whole.  As you can see from the chart, Seattle’s trends closely mirror the state’s, and both mirror the nation overall.  Which makes sense: broad generational changes, rather than anything specific about Seattle itself, explain most of the absolute decline in the number of kids compared with half a century ago.  The migration of different types of families to and from the city is of secondary importance to the far more significant shifts in childbearing and longevity.

    So there’s no denying that there aren’t a lot of kids in Seattle.  But it’s not like city officials or “urban elites” built a time machine and tinkered with the 1960s and 1970s.  Blaming current policy for a trend that had its origins 50 years ago is just sloppy thinking.

    But I’m sure that won’t stop some people from trying.

    [Note:  an earlier version of this post contained a different graph.  In the previous, incorrect graph, I mistakenly included 18 and 19 year olds as “under-18s” in the 2000 data point for both Seattle and Washington as a whole.  The shape of the graph has changed a bit, but not in a way that affects the underlying argument:  (a) Seattle’s “childless” shift is mostly explained by broader demographics; (b) the biggest changes in Seattle relative to the rest of the state occurred in the 1960s and 1970s and (c) if anything, census data indicate that the city vs. state “child gap” actually narrowed in recent years—suggesting that Seattle has actually become more attractive to families with kids, compared with the rest of the state, than in any year since 1980.]