At Crosscut, Dick Morrill’s “How Seattle is exporting its poor people” set off my BS detector, so I decided to spot check one of the claims.
Here’s what Morrill says about families:
The traditional nuclear family… is remarkably low, by historic and US standards, in Seattle, Tacoma, and inner suburban areas. Conversely these core urban areas are high in non-family households, in singles and unmarried partners, both opposite and same sex. This is a second manifestation of gentrification and the shift of families to the suburbs, as well as a distinctive marker of Seattle. But note that there has been a small increase in young children in Seattle in the last few years, among more affluent households, although the share is still very low, under 10 percent.
This is at least misleading, and maybe just false.
Morrill’s implication is a tired old complaint. Times are a’ changin’! Families are fleeing the hostile encroachment of “urbanists” with their scary condos and bike lanes and farmer’s markets. Or something.
But it’s all wrong. Here’s the truth: there is no shift of families to the suburbs. In fact, just the opposite is happening: there is a shift of families into the city of Seattle.
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For ages, Seattle was a remarkably childless place. (It’s only real peer on this score was San Francisco.) But since at least 2000, all that has been changing. In fact, the city is bucking national and state-wide demographic trends toward fewer children and families.
Here’s a look at the actual data:
I don’t think these figures need much elaboration. Like most big cities, Seattle has a smaller share of children and families than the state as a whole. But the trend is what’s interesting, and the trend is where Morrill goes astray. Washington as a whole is more or less following the national demographic trend of an aging population and delayed (and reduced) child-bearing. But Seattle, by contrast, is actually becoming a more family-oriented city.
You can parse Census demographic data all day long (and I’ve actually done that occasionally). So I want to give fair warning that I’ve presented only a couple of slices of it here. Still, on any even-handed analysis of trends for children and families, you’ll find results that are at least roughly congruent to these.
As a quick personal aside, these figures mirror my own experience. I was born in the city of Seattle, but my formerly city-dwelling parents moved to the suburbs shortly thereafter. That was pretty much what everyone did in the early 1970s. Last year, however, my son was born in the city (at the very same hospital no less) and like so many other new parents we know, we have every intention of raising him in our dense, walkable in-city community.
So if you wanted to draw any overheated conclusions from these figures, as Morrill seems fond of doing, I suppose the correct one would be that “old Seattle” was hostile to families, but “new Seattle” is becoming more kid-friendly all the time.
UPDATE 11/12/10—Please see Clark’s excellent post, “Childless in Seattle?” in which he gathers demographic data back to 1960 to show definitively that it’s all a myth. In fact, Seattle has always had fewer children than the state as whole. Relatively speaking, it actually lost children during the ’60’s and ’70’s, and only recently appears to be narrowing the gap. Seriously, go read the whole thing.
Notes: All figures refer to the city of Seattle proper or the state of Washington. Figures for 2000 come from US Census Bureau’s decennial census as recorded in the table, “Profile of General Demographic Characteristics: 2000.” Share of population under 10 are calculated from the American Community Survey’s new 2009 one-year estimates; see table “B01001 – Sex By Age: Universe: Total Population.” Share of families with children are calculated from ACS three-year estimates for 2006 to 2008; see table, “Selected Social Characteristics in the United States: 2006-2008.”
Hmmm… I don’t think that I, myself, would characterize “old Seattle” as being “hostile to families.” I grew up in “old Seattle” in the early 70’s and 80’s and experienced, first hand, Seattle’s kid-friendliness during that era. My Seattle neighborhood was full of families with kids who all roller skated, bicycled, bowled, swam in Lake Washington, went to the movies, and performed plays together. So, maybe things changed sometime after that? Was that “old Seattle” neighborhood on Capitol Hill somehow considered an anomaly??
Thanks for taking the time to run those numbers. When I read the same article on Cross Cut it also rang up my B.S. meter. Why? Because I’ve heard the identical thing in Boise where I’ve lived since 1977. I lived in Boise’s North End, well known for being much like certain gentrified areas of Portland and Seattle. The same tired non news that gentrification is driving kids and families away. Even an Ohio based school consultant tried to convince the Boise School District to consolidate and close 4 schols, three of which were in Boise’s North End neighborhood, because “you will continue to lose children due to gentrification”. Well, it didn’t happen. My daughter, now 14, went through elementary school in an era that lasted 4, maybe 5 years at the most where there was only one class per grade (her age group going through school). By the time she hit 5th grade, school was back up to two full classes per grade, and there were more families than ever in the North End, when real estate was at it’s peak. It remains to this day, a great place to raise a family because you can bike, it’s on a grid, you can walk, there are neighborhood parks and it’s in the close to downtown urban interface. All the school are bursting at the seams with portable classrooms. Folks who moved to the suburbs are trying to figure out a way to ditch their oversized homes and the commute and move into the urban center. Does it cost more? Sure it does, but the rewards are more, too. And the best high school in Idaho is right there in that gentrified area with all those kids. Hmmm?
Eric de Place
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Spudboater. (I’m in love with Boise’s North End, BTW; what a great neighborhood.)The whole thing is a classic heads-I-win-tails-you-lose argument. If young people and children are moving to the suburbs, then it’s because of some sickness with urban policies. But if young people and and children are moving into the city, it’s the elites and gentrifiers who are “pushing out” poor people. The city can’t win.
Eric says that Dick Morrill claims (which he does not) “Families are fleeing the hostile encroachment of “urbanists” with their scary condos and bike lanes and farmer’s markets. Or something.”And later in a comment “The whole thing is a classic heads-I-win-tails-you-lose argument. If young people and children are moving to the suburbs, then it’s because of some sickness with urban policies. But if young people and and children are moving into the city, it’s the elites and gentrifiers who are “pushing out” poor people. The city can’t win.”I think this grossly misrepresents the issues of gentrification and the city land use policies that enable it. You can knock Morrill if you want, but the conditions he describes are occurring. By not looking critically at policies that are causing this and avoiding serious analysis of the social conditions (livibilty, affordability, etc) that are necessary to keep families in the city are are only shooting the messenger.The idea of urbanism isn’t wrong, its how it is implemented that sometimes is. Minor course corrections are necessary or the trends of the last several generations will continue to some degree, and today that is still too great.Where Sightline and your thinking would be more useful is trying to look at these trends and tie those to the policy failures that are there to be fixed.
Eric de Place
Bill,Here’s the subtitle of Morrill’s article: “A look at new Census data shows the effects of gentrification and new urbanist planning for the region, with families and poor people fleeing to the south of Seattle.”So, yes, that is what’s he’s arguing: families are fleeing new urbanist planning. You write: “You can knock Morrill if you want, but the conditions he describes are occurring.”No. These conditions are NOT occuring. That’s my point. In a word, Morrill is wrong about the facts of the case. Quite the opposite of his implication, Seattle’s “kid gap” is shrinking! Families appear to be attracted by new urbanist planning, which is not surprising at all if you think about the many benefits that it confers for liveability and affordability. The problem, if there was one, appears to have occurred during the ’60s and ’70s when families actually did leave the city for suburban locations.
While it’s true that the “old Seattle” was kid-friendly like at the Seattle Center, during the 1970’s and 80’s there were more large singles’ groups and more acceptance of “pioneer types” and “individualists.” Today being in my early 60’s it seems that the married people outnumber the straight singles even in the city of Seattle in such places as Ballard!