No Children in the Cities

The New York Times has stumbled on the startling news that hip urban centers are mainly the domicile of singles and childless couples.

Vibrant Cities Find One Thing Missing: Children

Crime is down. New homes and businesses are sprouting everywhere. But in what may be Portland’s trendiest and fastest-growing neighborhood, the number of school-age children grew by only three between the census counts in 1990 and 2000, according to demographers at Portland State University. “The neighborhood would love to have more kids, that’s probably the top of our wish list,” said Joan Pendergast of the Pearl Neighborhood Association. “We don’t want to be a one-dimensional place.”

It is a problem unlike the urban woes of cities like Detroit and Baltimore, where families have fled decaying neighborhoods, business areas and schools. Portland is one of the nation’s top draws for the kind of educated, self-starting urbanites that midsize cities are competing to attract. But as these cities are remodeled to match the tastes of people living well in neighborhoods that were nearly abandoned a generation ago, they are struggling to hold on to enough children to keep schools running and parks alive with young voices.

San Francisco, where the median house price is now about $700,000, had the lowest percentage of people under 18 of any large city in the nation, 14.5 percent, compared with 25.7 percent nationwide, the 2000 census reported. Seattle, where there are more dogs than children, was a close second. Boston, Honolulu, Portland, Miami, Denver, Minneapolis, Austin and Atlanta, all considered, healthy, vibrant urban areas, were not far behind. The problem is not just that American women are having fewer children, reflected in the lowest birth rate ever recorded in the country.

Officials say that the very things that attract people who revitalize a city – dense vertical housing, fashionable restaurants and shops and mass transit that makes a car unnecessary – are driving out children by making the neighborhoods too expensive for young families.

Plus, as Virginia Postrel notes, people with kids natually want to live in the suburbs. Bigger yards, better schools, the perception of increased safety give parents every incentive to move away from the urban centers. This is true despite the fact that, as Matt Yglesias noted nearly a year ago, the suburbs are statistically more dangerous.*

*Matt’s site moved a few months ago and he didn’t migrate his archives, so I’m linking to my post responding to his.

FILED UNDER: Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘Officials say that the very things that attract people who revitalize a city – dense vertical housing, fashionable restaurants and shops and mass transit that makes a car unnecessary – are driving out children by making the neighborhoods too expensive for young families.’

    It’s much more than that. As the middle class leaves big cities their concerns aren’t represented and ‘people who revitalize a city’ whoever they are, really have little investment in the city. My kids go to the Boston public schools and my family is very involved in the school, local parish and the community. However people like us are a very small minority and also reside in the neighborhoods. The wealthy tend to have little or no interest in the community and if they have kids they send their kids to private schools. The transients, drifters or whatever you want to call them have no interest and hopefully little involvement in the community except that if they vote they tend to support single issues which are often out of step with what established residents support. If you look at the local media they’re mainly limousine liberals who’d cut off a finger before living in the city. There’s nothing quite like being called a racist by someone who lives in Cambridge because you want an elementary school in your neighborhood that your 6 year old can walk to.

  2. Mark says:

    Something I do not have to worry about yet, but I have friends with kids who do – if you lived in the DC metro area, where would you prefer to send your kids to school: the Fairfax County system or the DC public school system? For parents who can live in either area but cannot afford private school tuition the answer is obvious.

    I have misgivings right now about living in DC, but when I get married and have kids there is no way I would even consider moving there and subjecting my kids to those schools.

  3. Jack Tanner says:

    Obviously where you choose to live is a matter of personal choice but I don’t think the choice is as obvious as it seems. I’m not that familiar with DC but in many ways I’m sure the situation is similar here in Boston. The suburban schools generally have better facilities and standardized test scores but for years Boston Latin School claimed to be the best public high school in the country. But when you say ‘parents who can live in either area but cannot afford private school tuition’ really doesn’t apply to the bedroom communities here because if you can afford to buy pay $750,000 for a modest home there you can most likely afford another $10-15 K for private school. I’m no martyr for the public schools but I think long term it’s very bad for the cities not to have a growing middle class and without the support of the middle class the public schools will never improve. And if the public schools don’t improve then exactly as you say most people are going to choose to live outside the city and because of the costs involved you end up with exurbs and long commutes and sprawl and further deterioration of the residential areas in the cites. What I really take issue with is the description of ‘people who revitalize a city’ who are really going to do little to revitalize the city but actually just create an environment where you have high end areas slums. I really don’t want to live in the Third World.

  4. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘high end areas or slums.’

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    The conundrum for cities is that even if the number of students actually declines the cost of running the schools will rise. Teachers have tenure. Salary schedules are based on time-in-grade and educational level established by contract.

    Over time I suspect that rising taxes and fewer people with children will tend to erode what political support there is for the already-beleagured public schools.