In the latest installment of a series that might be called the “get off my lawn, kids!” series, retired UW professor Dick Morrill rolls out an inflammatory and misleading article in Crosscut on demographics in Seattle. It is a bizarre piece of writing for at least two reasons: 1) the headline has virtually no connection to the evidence he provides; and 2) his promise in the opening sentence, to evaluate change over time, goes essentially unfulfilled in the piece.

Let’s take a closer look at where Morrill goes astray.

First, he (correctly) notes that Seattle’s population contains a lower percentage of children than many other locations. But then he adds (incorrectly), “the gradient is perhaps more marked than earlier.” Sorry, that’s false.

In fact, over the last decade — the period of time that Morrill purports to analyze but doesn’t — Seattle became a bona fide magnet for children, adding nearly 6,000 kids to the population. In terms of attracting and retaining kids, Seattle easily outperformed King County as a whole, Washington as a whole, and the United States as whole. In the Northwest, only two other large cities did as well: Bellevue and Salem.

In fact, if you trace Census data back in time, it turns out that Seattle’s relative childlessness was mostly a phenomenon of the 1960s and 1970s. It was during those halcyon days when Seattle became distinctively less filled with children than surrounding communities. Things leveled off somewhat during the 1980s and 1990s, and only during the last decade has Seattle begun to close the “child gap” once again. We’ve documented this here and here.

Morrill doesn’t quit there, though. He goes further to claim that the supposed decline in youngsters in Seattle is the result “of growth management and the concentration of higher-density development in the core cities…” Those are fighting words. They’re also empty ones. He offers no evidence to support his claim. None. And his claim is contradicted by the evidence.

First, Seattle’s “child gap” only began to shrink after the growth management era kicked in around 1996. That’s right: after growth management started, Seattle stopped losing and started gaining kids relative to the rest of the state. Second, the other locations that did well for children — Salem and Bellevue — were also both adding considerable density during that same time period. Both, furthermore, are subject to growth management laws. In fact, local demographers tell me that Bellevue’s remarkable growth in children occurred almost entirely in that city’s densest areas: downtown, Crossroads, and Factoria.

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  • The rest of the piece mainly consists of snapshot factoids about the demographics of Washington localities coupled with non-sequitur analysis. Because he includes virtually no analysis of change over time (despite the piece’s premise), we get stuff like this:

    The shares of population over 65 and of single-parent households also have distinct patterns. The highest shares of the elderly are naturally in retirement communities, followed by island places (Vashon and Bainbridge and Mercer Island) and some older suburbs. Low shares of older folks characterize military bases, areas with many ethnic minorities, and some younger suburbs such as Sammamish and Mill Creek, and (in contrast to many large cities) in Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett.

    High shares of single-parent families occur on Indian reservations, on military bases, and in minority ethnic areas, most notably in south King County and parts of Pierce County. Low shares of single-parent households occur, as expected, in affluent suburbs, but are surprisingly low in Seattle. These variables, in particular, attest to the continuing gentrification of Seattle, and its changing patterns of ethnicity related to gentrification and high housing costs. [emphasis mine]

    When I taught Logic 101 to freshmen, I awarded D-minuses for this kind of reasoning. Take a moment to parse it: Morrill uses a couple pieces of data for 2010 (Seattle has modestly lower shares of elderly folks and single family households than some other places) to argue that this is evidence of “continuing” gentrification and “changing patterns.” Without providing data for 2000 or earlier, though, we have no idea if things have been changing at all, much less in which direction.

    Here’s another thing that burns me up. Both in the article’s kicker and in the analysis, Morrill focuses on “married couples with children, the historic norm.” I’ll grant that’s the historic norm (and I’ll grant it’s the way that Census data are most easily parsed), but it’s an extremely limited viewpoint. It’s blind to the substantial numbers of families with gay parents or straight-but-unwed parents, which are a huge feature of the landscape of urban families. A far better way of evaluating demographics is just to look at how many kids there are, irrespective of whether the parents look like “the historic norm.”

    There’s plenty more in the piece to nitpick, but I’ll just close with what really infuriates me about the piece, the headline: “Will the last family leaving Seattle please turn out the lights?” It’s a cheap shot, totally unsupported by data or evidence, and just plain wrong. (Interestingly, however, that headline would have been supportable during the time that Morrill lionizes, the 1960s and 1970s.)

    Here are the facts. Like most countries in the industrial world, the United States has an aging population. Nationally, the share of the population under 18 shrank by 1.7 percent over the last decade, while the share of children in Washington shrank even faster, by 2.2 percent. Unsurprisingly, numerous peer cities, including Portland and Tacoma, saw a decline in the absolute number of children. Yet Seattle (and Bellevue and Salem) somehow bucked the trend, adding thousands of kids, and maintaining stability, or nearly so, in the share of their population under 18.

    Morrill may not like it, but those are the facts. Traditional families are now a distinct minority in the US and the Northwest. Yet in a big departure from earlier decades, families are increasingly choosing city living in the Seattle area.

    For more on this subject — including actual data for readers to evaluate — I encourage you to read three additional pieces Sightline has written on this topic recently: “Children In the Northwest,” “Childless in Seattle?“, and “Seattle Is Becoming More Kid Friendly, Not Less.”