Spoiler alert: It’s simply not the case that families with kids have disappeared from urban America.
Look around a hip neighborhood in Lower Manhattan or downtown San Francisco, and you’ll see lots of young people, and Baby Boomers whose kids have left the nest. There are also some stylish moms (or nannies) pushing tots in strollers. But you won’t see many traditional nuclear families with school-age children.
There’s a growing consensus that our cities are becoming “childless.” This past October, Axios ran a story on the ”great family exodus,” showing data that the share of families with children under the age of 20 has fallen in 53 large cities across the country. As far as I can tell, the phrase “childless cities” was first advanced in 2013 by Joel Kotkin in an essay of that title for City Journal.
Several factors are said to be pushing families with kids out of cities: the expensiveness of city living; the lagging performance of urban versus suburban public schools; and the preference of immigrant families for the suburbs over urban locations. But just how childless are our cities, really?
Karen King, a demographer with my research group in the University of Toronto’s School of Cities, pulled data from the 2016 five-year estimates of the American Community Survey on the share of households with their own children under the age of 18. She did this for all principal cities and metropolitan areas in the U.S.
Across the U.S., just 28.5 percent of households have their own children under 18. The first table below shows the 10 principal cities with the highest levels of childlessness. To be blunt, only a small number of cities can be said to be anywhere near childless.
Of the 47 cities with more than 350,000 people, just seven are far off the national average. San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. are the only three where less than a fifth of families have kids under 18. Add New Orleans (likely a result of depopulation after Hurricane Katrina), Miami (a retirement destination), Minneapolis, and Philadelphia to the list. The remainder of the top 10 is within five percentage points or so of the national average.
And some cities we commonly think of as childless are not so childless at all. In New York City, for example, 26.2 percent of families have children under 18; in Los Angeles, the share is 27 percent.
The next chart looks at the large cities with the highest share of families with kids. These are mainly Sunbelt and Western cities, such as Fort Worth, Arlington, El Paso, and San Antonio in Texas, as well as Phoenix, Colorado Springs, and Fresno. But San Jose, in the very heart of Silicon Valley, ranks third, likely due to the high percentage of immigrant families and its relative affordability compared to the rest of the Bay Area.
Still, San Jose is one of the priciest cities in the nation, with a median home value in excess of $1 million. The places with the largest shares of families with kids—where families with kids range from more than half to 70 percent of all households—are mainly smaller cities that are home to military bases, like Fort Knox, Kentucky, or agricultural communities with high percentages of immigrant families, like Watsonville, California.
Looking at the most-childless cities of any size, that list (below) skews heavily toward retirement destinations in Florida and college towns such as State College, Pennsylvania. In other words, these are places you’d expect to have fewer households with children under 18, so they don’t support the case that U.S. cities are becoming more childless.
The picture changes again when we look at metro areas as opposed to principal cities. The chart below shows the 10 large metros (that is, with more than 1 million people) that have the lowest share of families with kids. Now we see mainly Rust Belt and Sunbelt retirement places. Pittsburgh tops the list, with Tampa second. Buffalo, Cleveland, and Rochester also number among the 10 most childless metros. But none of them is that far off from the national average.
When we flip things around and look at the metros with the highest share of families with kids, we get more surprises. Salt Lake City tops the list. But again, pricey, techie San Jose is pretty far up the list in fourth place, and Washington, D.C. is eighth. The Los Angeles (30.6 percent), Chicago (29.9 percent), and New York (29.2 percent) metro areas are all above the national average, kid-wise, and Seattle (28.5 percent), San Francisco (28.2 percent), and Boston (28.1 percent) are at or close to it.
What it boils down to is that childlessness is a product of a very limited number of cities, like San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C. And even in those places, the broader metro area is not so far off from the rest of the country. Actually, childlessness is only a phenomenon of a few uber-expensive neighborhoods in a few super-expensive cities.
This reflects how certain neighborhoods come to specialize in certain kinds of residents by income and stage of life. The childless city is less than it seems—more a myth than a reality of contemporary urban life.