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:

     pop under 10



    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.”