You hear versions of it all the time from urban-skepticalfolks: that cities are losing their children. The implication usually seems to be that the little tykes are driven out by condos or light rail or whatever the outrage du jour is—and that the absence of children denotes some sickness at the heart of new urbanism. But here’s the thing: it’s not true.

Or, at least it’s not true in the Northwest. Take a look at the actual data and you find that the cities of Portland and Seattle are relative bastions for families. Since 2000, they’ve been bucking large-scale demographic trends and hanging onto kids. (Clark has already put this myth to rest for Vancouver, BC so I’m focusing here on the region’s two other big cities.)

From 2000 to 2008, the share of the American population under 18 has declined pretty dramatically, by 6.6 percent. (There’s nothing nefarious at work, just demographic trends driven in part by aging baby boomers and a slightly declining fertility rate.) Oregon and Washington are actually aging faster than the nation: the share of their populations that are kids are down 8.4 and 8.7 percent, respectively.

But check out their biggest cities. Portland’s percentage of children declined by just 4 percent, while Seattle’s declined by just 1.4 percent. In other words, when you adjust for large-scale demographic trends, the Northwest’s biggest cities are retaining children and familes better than other places. Both Seattle and Portland are holding onto their share of children far better than the nation — and far better than either Oregon or Washington.


  • What the chart above doesn’t reveal, however, is the absolute share of the populations that are children. Here’s what that looks like:


    Still, I’d argue that this picture is actually somewhat misleading. In many ways, it reflects history, not current trends. Seattle has long been an outlier with one of the lowest percentages of children among American cities. (In fact, according to this NYT article, only San Francisco has a smaller share of children than Seattle among American cities.) But it’s not like this is something new; it appears to have been the case for at least the last 18 years. Unfortunately, there’s no easy access to strictly comparable local demographic data prior to 1990, at least not that I could find, so we can’t look further back in time.

    Still, there’s plenty to learn from the past two decades. During 1990s, the share of children nationally rose slightly from 25.6 to 26.2. We saw similar trends at work in the Northwest, with the share of Washington’s population under 18 increasing just a hair (from 25.9 to 26 percent) while Oregon’s declined but only a smidge from (25.5 to 25.2 percent). Mirroring national trends, the slice of Portland’s residents who were children increased a bit during the 1990s (21.9 to 22.2), but Seattle’s declined from an already low 16.5 percent in 1990 to 15.6 percent in 2000. 

    Then in new millenium, something changed. The share of children nationally and in Oregon and Washington began to decline, while reinvigorated Northwest cities began doing better with families. So I’m much less interested in the fact that for nearly 2 decades Portland has had a somewhat smaller share of children than Oregon; and that Seattle has been a remarkably childless city. What’s interesting to me is the trend of the 2000s: relative to most other places, both Portland and Seattle are becoming more kid-friendly, not less.

    Notes: All data are from the US Census Bureau. Figures for 1990 and 2000 are from the decennial census numbers using the QuickFacts interface. Figures for 2008 are from the American Community Survey and refer to a 3-year average from 2006-2008. (I chose to use the 3-year average ACS data because it is more accurate for local populations than the single-year numbers.)