Something interesting happens when we compare the study on adoptions with this work on neighborhoods. We find that one factor about a home—its location—accounts for a significant fraction of the total effect of that home. In fact, putting together the different numbers, I have estimated that some 25 percent—and possibly more—of the overall effects of a parent are driven by where that parent raises their child. In other words, this one parenting decision has much more impact than many thousands of others.
Why is this decision so powerful? Chetty’s team has a possible answer for that. Three of the biggest predictors that a neighborhood will increase a child’s success are the percent of households in which there are two parents, the percent of residents who are college graduates, and the percent of residents who return their census forms. These are neighborhoods, in other words, with many role models: adults who are smart, accomplished, engaged in their community, and committed to stable family lives.
There is more evidence for just how powerful role models can be. A different study that Chetty co-authored found that girls who move to areas with lots of female patent holders in a specific field are far more likely to grow up to earn patents in that same field. And another study found that Black boys who grow up on blocks with many Black fathers around, even if that doesn’t include their own father, end up with much better life outcomes.
I will add this to my list of why it matters where people choose to live: it affects the life chances of kids.
Just having this data only goes so far. A few examples of where it gets trickier to figure out what to do with such information:
How many parents would act on the information compared to other reasons for choosing where to live?
How many parents could act on this information even if they wanted to?
Are there enough neighborhoods in which children could benefit? Do the current residents of such neighborhoods want lots of people moving in?
Are parents responsible for moving kids to such locations or are other actors responsible for helping kids live in these locations?
And so on. The implications of these findings could take decades to work out, particularly as Americans generally want to provide opportunities for their kids.
“My working hypothesis is that children now grow up too isolated within their own homes,” he said. “Too often, they have separate bedrooms and living spaces when they would instead benefit from more interaction with other siblings and adults.”…
Australians builds the second biggest houses in the world after the US, according to a report by CommSec and the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which also found the average floor size of an Australian home (houses and apartments) was 189 square metres in 2018-19.
About 4 per cent of Australian households are considered overcrowded, or require additional bedrooms for the number of occupants, Professor Dockery said. “The vast majority of children simply do not grow up in homes that are crowded,” he said. “It appears they grow up in homes that are too empty.”…
Paul Burton, director of the Cities Research Institute at Griffith University, said overcrowding was a problem when it was a product of economic necessity rather than a choice.
I wonder if this possible issue extends to both countries with big houses – with the United States and Australia leading the way – and countries with lower birth rates where the homes may be smaller but there are fewer children. In the latter case, other features of social life might mitigate the problem of fewer people at home including more social ties and and more participation in public spaces. It may not just be the homes are larger in certain places; the emphasis on private space and private lives could be influential.
And another thought: these large homes may have fewer people but they could be filled with a lot of stuff. It may not be just fewer people to interact with but more objects, material items a child sees and interacts with. This could include screens but also toys, clothes, decorations, and clutter. Does all of this decrease sociability?
As part of the suburban landscape, the McMansion is then part of the goal of raising children. Young children may be less interested in the home’s status and ability to broadcast a message to neighbors but the homeowners hope they use and benefit from the safe, private space that can both host time with others (family, friends) and provide space to be alone. In addition to the benefits of the school districts and communities in which the suburban McMansions are located, those with the means to purchase and maintain a McMansion also likely have the resources to put their children in extra activities or visit places or provide lots of stuff at home.
In this suburban world, women have traditionally been responsible for child care and ensuring the success of children. Think of the typical image of the 1950s suburban family: father goes off in the morning to a corporate job and returns in the evening to be served or doted on by his family. The wife takes care of the children and all the household duties with little help from the father. And even in today’s world with more attention from fathers to caring for children and household duties, children are often still the responsibility of mothers.
So if McMansions, single-family homes devoted to nuclear family life, are often nested within suburbs, also devoted to nuclear families and children, and caring for children and family often falls to women, then one of the primary social roles of the McMansion is gendered. The large home might be a status symbol as well as an attempt to get the most house for the money but it is certainly a space intended to grow successful children.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.