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.
Take 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.
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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.]
Hi Clark,I think the rise of the “women’s lib” movement in the 1960s and 1970s could be one of the things your graph is highlighting. Career women have much less time and energy for child bearing. The last 2 decades possibly show the attempt at finding the career/family balance.
Michelynne—I think you’re on to something—I think changes in women’s status and economics were very much tied up with the end of the baby boom. As were other big economic forces—e.g., the end of the time when a kid with a high-school diploma could find a job that paid middle-class wages. That brief period in the 1950s—which even today we hail as “normal”—was actually a historical anomaly that substantially lowered the average age of marriage, and hence increased childbearing.
You’re forgetting the more-dogs-than-children meme, which is true. I recall a chart from the P-I showing a dramatic increase in households with children the moment you cross 145th Street into Shoreline. My sense is the child-flight has a lot to do with the general appeal of the ‘burbs for families with kids, less expensive/more roomy homes and the relatively dismal state of the Seattle school system.
Seattle doesn’t appear hostile to families – just to POOR families.
I think many families that can afford to live in the city often move because of schools. I was born in 1972 and my family moved to the Shoreline school district when I was going into 3rd grade. Now that my son is headed towards school I can understand the flight reaction. But we’re staying so we’re hoping to make the best of it at our local school even though I just checked the school reports and they’re kind of freaking me out since our reference school didn’t do too well. But hopefully parent involvement will help and test scores aren’t the only thing to make or break a school.
I agree with Eric. While Seattle may not be outright anti-kid, the City and associated governments have made active policy and financial decisions that cause parents to question their choice to raise kids in the City. I live in Seattle and have two kids…so I speak from experience. Some examples: 1) Schools – The newly adopted policy regarding “neighborhood schools” is going to drive families out. If your “neighborhood” school sucks, you are going to move or send your kid to private school…2) Parks and facilities – Good kid parks and family friendly facilities are a lot more than simply having playground equipment and discounted family rates. Seattle Parks, trails, and facilities are great for adults and people with dogs, but not kids. With a few notable exceptions, like the Woodland Park Zoo, going to local parks or “family” places like the Aquarium or Pike Place market is not relaxing for parents… 3) Life style costs….High cost of housing that is not full of lead paint, old pipes, and crappy wiring, daycare costs, etc. – much higher in the City. 4) Anti-car policies – Like it or not, biking and public transit is not really an option for the majority of average two kid families. Policies that remove lanes and parking on neighborhood roads and increase costs for on-street parking may be great for some, but they don’t really screem out “Welcome!” for families with two little kids in strollers, with four hours between naps, and who want to head downtown to see Santa or spend some time at Seattle Center.
Eric -Hm. I’m not sure that the more dogs than kids meme is true. I think it’s possible, but I’m (modestly) skeptical: when I looked into it a few years back, the calculation of dogs in Seattle was simply the national average number of dogs per household, multiplied by the number of households in Seattle. I have no idea if Seattle is above or below the national average—but I would not be at all surprised if the number of dogs per household in the big city is lower than the national average, which includes suburbs and rural areas.More generally, I totally agree that Seattle doesn’t have a lot of kids, compared with the state as a whole. But my point is: that’s been true since 1980!!! And (if anything) it appears to be slightly LESS true now than it was then. Of course, we’ll have to see how it all pans out in the Census—the ACS estimates could be off, of course.
Eric de Place
Benn,I couldn’t disagree more! Anyone who visits the zoo, the aquarium, Pike Place Market, the Science Center, the Children’s Museum, etc will tell you that they are simply swarming with people who take their kids there from all over the region. Living within a short bus ride (or walk) of those places is one of the things I like most about raising a kid in the city.Housing is more expensive in the city per square foot, no doubt about it. But transportation costs are much lower, and there are other compensating benefits that are simply enormous.As the for the “anti-car” policies you cite, I’m simply stunned. Removing car lanes for bike lanes is practically THE most kid friendly transportation policy I can imagine. What’s really hostile to walking with a kid in a stroller is high-speed multi-lane traffic that’s not aware of peds, bikes, etc. I’ll readily admit that I drive more and bike less than I did before I had a kid, but riding the bus with him is actually pretty delightful: it’s a very affordable way to commute and spend time together all at once. Walking and riding the bus very much ARE options for families—good options. If I had my way, the city would start getting much more aggressive about managing cars and parking with young kids in mind.
Parents vote with their feet, so the saying goes and since I attended the Seattle Public Schools in the mid-1960’s (96,000 enrollment) Seattle has become a city with nearly the highest private school enrollment per capita. SPS enrollment this year (2015) was 800 kids under projections and now is approx 51,000 total.
I do not really understand your statement about riding the bus to visit the zoo with kids in tow is a great option. Not disputing that you and your kids love riding Metro, just saying EVERY OTHER PARENT I KNOW in this town would disagree as do I… YMMV.
I see parents riding bikes on busy arterial streets in Ballard with kids strapped into flimsy bike trailers below the level of SUV hoods and I want to cite them for child endangerment. Honestly, if an adult wants to risk their life riding a 35 lb bike on a busy arterial jostling with 5,000 lb cars, 50,000 lb buses and trucks, fine, to each their own, I like riding my bike on safer sidestreets, but the child’s life is at risk with no say in the matter. I do not believe there are “family friendly” arterial bike lanes as is implied when you want to commute to urban destination entertainment sites.
Removing car lanes is a religious war which a majority of busy parents think counter-productive to safety and urban efficiency. My wife and I love visiting Paris where mass transit has the density and infrastructure to make travel by subway convenient. Seattle my hometown will likely never reach that synergy in my lifetime, thank goodness because then as in Paris the only way non-microsoft millionaires could afford to live in the city is with mandated rent control and a virtual prohibition of new construction that does not guarantee affordable housing replacement. Like I said not in my lifetime.
Jessica -Your story is very similar to our own Eric de Place—born in Seattle, moved out to the burbs as a kid, now choosing to stay in the city to start a family. It’s obviously not fair to extrapolate from 2 data points to a broader trend, but I actually don’t think your experience is all that unusual. But by the same token, it’s also not that unusual these days for families to move out of the city when they have kids. The only way to figure out what’s *really* going on in the aggregate, I suppose, is to look at the numbers.Scott–A quibble: the growth of poverty in the inner-ring suburbs & the rise in wealth in central cities is a broad national trend. Brookings & others have written tons on this: it’s not just Seattle’s inner ring suburbs that are experiencing rising poverty, it’s happening almost everywhere in the country.Now, it’s possible that cities are actively pursuing a functionally identical set of policies that have the effect of attracting wealthier residents to cities & ejecting poor people. But given how widespread the trend is, I’ve got to think that there’s more to it than any particular city’s culture or policy. More likely, it’s driven by society-wide trends in technology & economics & demographics: delayed childbearing leading to more two-earner couples with high incomes who value their time (proximity to jobs, goods and services) more than elbow room; rising time & economic costs associated with municipal congestion, leading high-wealth households to look to move closer to jobs; existing homeowners acting in their own self-interest by blocking the construction of new housing that might lower value of their own properties; lower-income folks finding better and less expensive housing outside the city, in now-aging inner ring suburb housing stock; etc.
The meme ‘Seattle is hostile to kids’ is a misdirection of our problem. And this essay doesn’t address the core issue: the rising cost of affordable family housing in the city. ‘Family friendly’ is not the opposite of ‘hostile to kids’.What largely remains in Seattle for development is infill – Lowrise and Neighborhood Commercial development is where the ‘action’ is. NC is yielding studio and one bedroom units with a small percentage at two or more (rare) bedrooms. In fact the development costs associated with the larger units make such units unaffordable to any but higher income families. Lowrise is producing larger townhouse stock that quite often is affordable only well above AMI. That coupled with the desire for open space, soon to be further reduced by the proposed Lowrise zone changes, may yield less housing stock for families. The net is that family friendly housing will steadily NOT be a significant component of new housing in the city.As such we will see families continue to become a smaller percentage of the the overall populace as the city grows unless mechanisms to produce affordable family friendly housing within our multifamily zones are found.What is happening here is what was experienced in San Francisco starting a generation ago: infill with higher priced or smaller units produced increased demand on single family homes resulting in million dollar price tags for a 3 BR home in the city.This only further added to sprawl in the Bay Area as families sought ‘family friendly’ housing which both fits their price range and ‘functional requirements’.It will be curious to see if we can address this production shortage of affordable family friendly housing.
Eric de Place
Bill,You write: “The net is that family friendly housing will steadily NOT be a significant component of new housing in the city. As such we will see families continue to become a smaller percentage of the the overall populace as the city grows…”I think you’re missing the point of Clark’s analysis: families and children are declining in Seattle because they are declining everywhere. The explanation is entirely demographic.”What is happening here” isn’t what happened to San Franciso (though I don’t think we know what that is). During the 1960’s and 1970’s, Seattle’s “kid gap” widened and then persisted for decades. So if there’s a problem, I suggest we start looking at what Seattle was doing at that time. In fact, since 2000, Seattle’s “kid gap” appears to be actually shrinking! That suggests that the city is becoming more family friendly, not less.
Does the Washington State data above include Seattle? What happens if you compare Seattle to “rest of Washington”?
Great question, Emmett! I’ll try to dive back into the numbers & take a look. It shouldn’t take me too long…
Emmett—When I run the numbers for Seattle vs. the rest of the state, the story barely changes. The rest of the state gets a fraction more fertile—just shift the pink line up a wee bit. Which makes sense, since Seattle is just a small share of the overall state population (about 20% in 1960 and less than 10% today).
Clark,I’m not convinced either way. While analysis of demographic trends is an effective methodology for answering some questions, I’m not sure your choice of methods can adequately speak to the issue at hand. For one, there are too many confounding factors that could contribute to demographic differences, some of which have already been suggested. There are issues of mobility, lower fertility rates, etc. But the issue you raise speaks to an “experience,” ie “Seattle is not kid friendly.” What is that? Why would people say that? Is it a meme that people take up and pass on, or does it actually represent the predominant experience of people trying to raise families in the city? While I commend your effort to address this stereotype, your analysis of census data doesn’t really get at the issue. All you do is give a reason to question the stereotype, but that is certainly not enough to debunk it!
Justin –Fair enough!!I totally agree that there are experiential issues that aren’t captured by the population numbers—and that, indeed, are very difficult to capture in any set of numbers.But I do think that the numbers are helpful in sorting out whether recent policies are, IN REALITY, and ON NET, making the city more or less attractive to families. Just as an example: it’s probably easy to find individuals who hate the school district’s shift towards neighborhood schools—folks who might leave the city as a result of the shift. The commenter above is just one example. But there might be some folks who like the change, because it makes it more certain that local families will be able to get their kids into their local schools. Some families who otherwise would have left town might be more willing to stay as a result.Anyway, my point isn’t that people don’t have, or shouldn’t have, strong feelings about city policies or cultural shifts. They do! And that’s natural! Nor is it that we shouldn’t be looking at city policies to figure out whether we should make city policies more family friendly. Perhaps so! (Though it’s important to look at the tradeoffs there.)Rather, my point is just that we shouldn’t interpret Seattle’s relative childlessness as evidence that RECENT POLICIES precipitated a net migration of families from the city. The evidence is pretty clear that the shift happened decades ago, and that the big shifts in kids per capita were part of a broader, society-wide, generational demographic shift.
Eric – Clark’s chart shows Seattle’s children as a % of population decreasing. But our PSRC and current city plan is to increase the city’s population by roughly 300K over the next 25 (i think) years. that means we need more family housing even thought the percentage of families may be decreasing. and if its increasing (ever so slightly) we’ll certainly need more.as far as family friendly, i just spent last night at a most distressing Seattle School District meeting, and it is pretty clear why many families flee for the ‘burbs leaving Dad and/or Mom with a commute…
Bill –I totally agree that, if we’re going to meet the PSRC projections, the city needs more housing for families!And I also agree that schools are a huge issue for families! If we could markedly improve Seattle schools, I think it might reverse some of the family flight that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. But school reform is hugely complicated and controversial—I have no earthly idea what actually works to improve schools, particularly in this crushing budget environment where budgets are being cut.