Derek Thompson discusses the decrease in children in large American cities:
Cities have effectively traded away their children, swapping capital for kids. College graduates descend into cities, inhale fast-casual meals, emit the fumes of overwork, get washed, and bounce to smaller cities or the suburbs by the time their kids are old enough to spell. It’s a coast-to-coast trend: In Washington, D.C., the overall population has grown more than 20 percent this century, but the number of children under the age of 18 has declined. Meanwhile, San Francisco has the lowest share of children of any of the largest 100 cities in the U.S…
But the economic consequences of the childless city go deeper. For example, the high cost of urban living may be discouraging some couples from having as many children as they’d prefer. That would mean American cities aren’t just expelling school-age children; they’re actively discouraging them from being born in the first place. In 2018, the U.S. fertility rate fell to its all-time low. Without sustained immigration, the U.S. could shrink for the first time since World World I. Underpopulation would be a profound economic problem—it’s associated with less dynamism and less productivity—and a fiscal catastrophe. The erosion of the working population would threaten one great reward of liberal societies, which is a tax-funded welfare and eldercare state to protect individuals from illness, age, and bad luck…
Finally, childless cities exacerbate the rural-urban conundrum that has come to define American politics. With its rich blue cities and red rural plains, the U.S. has an economy biased toward high-density areas but an electoral system biased toward low-density areas. The discrepancy has the trappings of a constitutional crisis. The richest cities have become magnets for redundant masses of young rich liberals, making them electorally impotent. Hillary Clinton won Brooklyn by 461,000 votes, about seven times the margin by which she lost Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin combined. Meanwhile, rural voters draw indignant power from their perceived economic weakness. Trump won with majority support in areas that produce just one-third of GDP by showering hate and vitriol on cities that attract immigration and capital…
For those young and middle-aged Americans who are having sex and having children, the smaller cities and suburbs might simply be a better place to live—and not just for the obvious reason that they’re more cost-friendly for the non-rich. Perhaps parents are clustering in suburbs today for the same reason that companies cluster in rich cities: Doing so is more efficient. Suburbs have more “schools, parks, stroller-friendly areas, restaurants with high chairs, babysitters, [and] large parking spaces for SUV’s,” wrote Conor Sen, an investor and columnist for Bloomberg. It’s akin to a division of labor: America’s rich cities specialize in the young, rich, and childless; America’s suburbs specialize in parents. The childless city may be inescapable.
The book and film Children of Men suggested people in the near future would not have children for some uncontrollable reason but perhaps cities will have fewer children by the collective individual and social choices of urban dwellers.
This also has implications for the American Dream which has tended to suggest parents will work hard and pass along benefits to future generations. Not having as many direct beneficiaries of actions could alter how people think about the future: it is one thing to project changes for a community (“this is good for Chicago’s future, whoever happens to live here”) versus thinking about more direct benefits which could also help a community (“my children will be better off – and they can continue to live in Chicago and benefit others”).
Final thought: this is a rare time when someone could claim the suburbs are “more efficient” for raising children. On one hand, I see the point: the suburban infrastructure has been built around children for decades. On the other hand, this idea of “efficiency” is an odd one as children can also be raised in cities and what Americans value for children and families is often closely tied to perceptions of cities and suburbs.
Kids should know about one of the largest civil engineering projects in the world: the Deep Tunnel project in and around Chicago.
This is from the Riverworks exhibit at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago. While some of the pieces of the exhibit failed to work the day we visited, I think I could see the purpose of the The Deep Tunnel exhibit: the floodwaters would be diverted away from the city.
The concept may appear simple and explainable to kids but the execution in real life is not. The exhibit suggests the flooding the past is now alleviated by Deep Tunnel. Yet, the problems are likely to go on in a region that continues to expand and change. Remediating water and flooding issues is a very difficult task compared to altering development at the beginning.
It is interesting to think how else this engineering feat could be presented to children. I could imagine a scaled model that kids could walk through to help give them a sense of the size of the sewers needed as well as the size of some of the water reservoirs. Deep Tunnel is not intended for minor amounts of water; this is supposed to help protect millions of people on a fairly regular basis. Communicating the sheer size could fascinate kids. Or, perhaps some sort of computer game where kids play the role of an engineer or expert as they make choices about where to divert water. Come to think of it, where is this version of Simcity or Roller Coaster Tycoon – “Infrastructure Builder” or “Sewer Wars” or something catchier.
Yesterday, I walked to the nearest bank and watched some construction going on. The work appeared to involve digging underneath the side of a street, possibly to deal with a pipe or some kind of wire. I was struck that while many neighbors or drivers would find such a sight a nuisance, many kids would be fascinated.
Plenty of books for children involve infrastructure and construction. These books discuss vehicles, what is underground, and how items get from one place to another. The emphasis on big machines doing physical work and the mobility of it all seems attractive to kids. (I would guess much of this attraction is due to socialization.) But, if I think back to my schooling, we spend little time analyzing and discussing these basic systems that are essential to all of our lives: electricity and electrical lines, plumbing and sewers, Internet cables, roads and highways, pipelines, gas lines, railroads, trucking, waterways, airplanes and airports, and other crucial pieces of infrastructure. Why?
In many ways, it would not be hard to incorporate these topics into multiple subjects. The first example that came to mind would be a unit about railroads. These are essential for moving goods long distances. Various subjects could tackle aspects of the railroad. Plenty of history and geography to note. The natural sciences could discuss steam engines, coal, diesel engines, and how such heavy objects move. The humanities have a wealth of stories, poems, songs, and other works that involve railroads. Math could involve analyzing timetables or schedules. Language arts could involve writing promotional materials for railroads or describing particular historical events involving trains.
Without more formal instruction on infrastructure, American adults may not (1) think often about how we all need to contribute to maintaining and building infrastructure and (2) have a good understanding of how it all works (not just the infrastructure itself but also related industries and aspects of social life). In other words, a lack of attention paid to infrastructure in school and learning may just contribute to a public that does not want to address the infrastructure issues facing the nation today.
A new sociology study followed 36 white ten to thirteen year olds to see how they approached race. Sociologist Margaret Hagerman describes her findings in an interview:
I use the phrase bundled choices because it seemed to me that there were some pretty striking patterns that emerged with these families in terms of how they set up their children’s lives. For example, I talk in the book about how choosing a neighborhood leads to a whole bunch of other choices—about schools, about the other people in the neighborhood. Decisions about who to carpool with, decisions about which soccer team to be on—you want to be on the same one as all your friends, and all these aspects of the kid’s life are connected to the parents’ choices about where to live.
I’m trying to show in the book that kids are growing up in these social environments that their parents shape. They’re having interactions with other people in these environments, and that’s, I think, where they’re developing their own ideas about race and privilege and inequality…
In my book, I’m trying to highlight this tension between the broad, overarching social structures that organize all of our lives and the individual choices that people make from within these structures. So yeah, if we had equal educational opportunities, people would not be able to make choices that would confer advantages to their child over someone else’s child, right? That wouldn’t even be a possibility. Certainly, the structural level really matters.
But the best answer I can really give is that the micro level potentially could shape what goes on at the institutional or structural level. I really think—and this might sound kind of crazy—that white parents, and parents in general, need to understand that all children are worthy of their consideration. This idea that your own child is the most important thing—that’s something we could try to rethink. When affluent white parents are making these decisions about parenting, they could consider in some way at least how their decisions will affect not only their kid, but other kids. This might mean a parent votes for policies that would lead to the best possible outcome for as many kids as possible, but might be less advantageous for their own child. My overall point is that in this moment when being a good citizen conflicts with being a good parent, I think that most white parents choose to be good parents, when, sometimes at the very least, they should choose to be good citizens.
Based on the interview, this sounds pretty consistent with existing research. Families with economic means will often choose good things for their children while either thinking little of the consequences for others or rationalizing their choices as being a good parent for putting their children first. This sounds like much of suburbia that emphasizes helping your children get ahead or the idea of “dream hoarders.”
This also sounds like Thomas Schelling’s work about how preferences for certain kinds of neighbors can aggregate to larger patterns of residential segregation. If everyone is just looking out for their own children, then larger structures develop.
These findings suggest Americans have limited understandings of how to address the public good. Many such decisions seem to be binary: pursue what is good for your family versus what might be good for everyone. What about options that could be good for everyone in the long run? Does it always have to be a zero-sum game?
A consistent finding of researchers when studying day-to-day suburban life or asking people about their suburban aspirations is the belief that the suburban life benefits families and children. Living alone in the suburbs presents particular problems.
That the suburbs are preferable for family life had an early start in Anglo suburbs. Historian Robert Fishman argues early English evangelicals like William Wilberforce moved from London to Clapham to give their wives and children safer and purer spaces outside the city. While the men could commute to the city for work and other engagements, the women and children had their own domain in the suburbs.
This image of a safe suburbia for families perhaps reached its peak in the decades immediately following World War II. The birth rate jumped (hence, Baby Boomers) and families needed more space. The country and many major cities faced a severe housing shortage. The social scientists who wrote the ethnographic study Crestwood Heights, a study of a Toronto suburb in the postwar era, noted that suburban social life revolved around the children: “In Crestwood Heights the major institutional focus is upon child-rearing.” (4) Even as these new suburbs may have offered few opportunities for teenagers until they could drive (sociologist Herbert Gans said Levittown was “endsville” for teenagers), families flocked to new homes, more green space, and new schools. Television shows of the era depicting suburbia tended to show white nuclear families enjoying a comfortable suburban life (think Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, and The Brady Bunch).
Today, many of these ideas about how much better suburbs are for children remain. The suburbs offer more green spaces. They are quieter. They have lower crime rates. There is less traffic. Kids get a more “typical” American upbringing (and the modal experience in recent generations is a suburban upbringing). Single-family homes in the suburbs allow a family to purchase more space for the entire family, acquiring separate bedrooms to extra rooms to larger yards.
One of the strongest indicators regarding the importance of families and children in suburbia involves the importance of school districts for the desirability of communities, property values, and helping determine where people move. Schools are important because they are viewed as the one sure thing that can propel children to greater heights: going to a good school district leads to a good college which leads to a good job and then a high income and a comfortable life. These school boundaries must be defended at all costs. Examples abound. This includes both the busing issues of the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as the recent case of students in the failing school district serving Ferguson, Missouri who for one year had a shot at a better education at a whiter and wealthier district until the law was changed. This includes a debate chronicled by anthropologist Rachel Heiman among New Jersey suburbs about which kids should go to which high schools (and the wealthier families were able to keep their kids in the better-performing schools and limit which other kids were able to come to their schools).
Whether suburban children always come out ahead compared to kids from cities or rural areas is less clear. Even if the suburbs can be exclusionary, some upward social mobility is possible, such as one study that suggested DuPage County offered more opportunities than other counties or programs from the federal government, such as the Gautreaux Program or the Moving to Opportunity program, that aimed to move kids from poorer urban contexts to wealthier suburban communities. Part of theexcitement about a return of Americans to cities involves the choices by some families to stay in major cities, such as the influx of families to Battery Park in Manhattan. But, many Americans associate the suburbs with kids playing in the yard, multiple institutions that help nurture children and family life, and successful family outcomes decades later.
A 2016 survey from mortgage company Lendinghome shows gender differences in which kind of places men and women would like to live:
According to Lendinghome, 54 percent of women want to live in the suburbs, while only 42 percent of men share that goal. Among women, 46 percent prefer established neighborhoods, while only 21 percent want an urban-like environment; for men those two options are nearly equally favored: 40 percent want an urban-like environment and 39 percent want an established neighborhood. One good thing about living in Chicago is that you can find neighborhoods that fit both criteria, said Julie Kim, realty agent with Century 21 in Lincolnwood. “One neighborhood I love showing to couples with this dilemma is Sauganash, which is still part of Chicago but gives that nice suburban pleasantville type of feel,” she said.
Lendinghome summarized the findings this way in May 2017:
Some couples may also struggle with different housing preferences based on gender and location. The data shows that women prefer traditional, cozy homes (48 percent) in the suburbs (54 percent), while men are more open to modern homes (48 percent) in urban-like settings (40 percent). Additionally, survey respondents from the West opted for city living (31 percent) more than those from the Midwest (8 percent).
Here is some speculation on why these differences might exist. The suburbs are often touted as the place that is better for kids because there is more space, the schools are better, and neighborhoods are safer. Since women are still often more responsible for the care of children, perhaps they prefer the suburbs because of their children. Additionally, many Americans see cities as less safe and women may feel this even more as they do not desire having to look out for their safety on a daily basis in the city.
In contrast, men have less responsibility for childcare or don’t think about this as much as being in their future and cities then offer more excitement. If they do think of the suburban life, some may see it as a trap: going to work for long periods bookended by significant commutes, having to keep up a yard, a lack of neighborhood activity, and a life revolving around the nuclear family with little chance for getting away.
I would guess that the preference for a suburban life goes up for both men and women with children but is lower both before couples have children and after those kids leave the house or become adults.
A new Pew report explains this statistical oddity: the annual birthrate in the US is down but women are having more children.
How can fertility be down even as the number of women who are having children is going up? There are complex statistical reasons for this, but the main cause of this confusing discrepancy is the age at which women are having children. Women are having children later in life — the median age for having a first baby is 26 now, up from 23 in 1994 — and this delay causes annual birth rates to go down, even as the cumulative number of babies per woman has risen…
Another factor, Livingston said, is the drop in teen birth rates, with black women seeing the biggest drop in that category.
See the Pew report here. An additional part of the explanation is that there are multiple measures at play here. A Pew report from earlier in 2018 explains:
But aside from this debate, the question remains: Is this really a record low? The short answer is: It’s complicated.
That’s because there are different ways to measure fertility. Three of the most commonly used indicators of fertility are the general fertility rate (GFR); completed fertility; and the total fertility rate (TFR). All three reflect fertility behavior in slightly different ways – respectively, in terms of the annual rate at which women are presently having kids; the number of kids they ultimately have; or the hypothetical number they would likely have based on present fertility patterns.
None of these indicators is “right” or “wrong,” but each tells a different story about when fertility bottomed out.
Measurement matters and the different measures can fit different social and political views.
I wonder if part of the issue is also that there is a clear drop in births from the earlier era – roughly 1950 to 1970 which we often associate with Baby Boomers – but the last 3+ decades have been relatively flat. This plateau of recent decades means researchers and commentators may be more prone to jump on small changes in the data. Many people would love to predict the next big significant rise or fall in numbers but a significant change may not be there, particularly when looking at multiple measures.