With the U.S. economy reviving, birth rates may be as well: the number of children born rose in 2013 by 4,700, the first annual increase since 2007. At the same time new household formation, after falling precipitously in the wake of the Great Recession, has begun to recover, up 100,000 this June from a year before.
This impacts the economy strongly in such areas as single-family home construction, the supply of labor and consumer demand.
For cities, being family friendly may become increasingly important as the large millennial generation starts entering their 30s, the primary years for raising children. In order to identify the parts of the country where new families are being formed most rapidly, we turned to demographer Wendell Cox. He crunched the data on the changes in the number of 5- to 14-year-olds since 2000 in the nation’s 52 largest metropolitan statistical areas.
We picked this age range because it encompasses when parents often move due to such issues as school quality, the cost of housing and long-term economic security. A toddler can do quite well in a small apartment, but when it’s time to go to school, or if the parents decide to have a second or a third child, many parents are forced to make what are often difficult and long-lasting choices about where to live.
Virtually all the metro areas where there has been the strongest growth in families from 2000 to 2013 are highly suburban, highly affordable and located in the South and Intermountain West. If they also have a strong economy, like top-ranked Raleigh, N.C., they are even more attractive. In concert with strong net in-migration, the number of children in the Raleigh metro area between the ages of 5 and 14 grew by 63,600 from 2000-13, or 55.7%. That’s roughly 10 times the national growth rate of 0.5% for this demographic.
The same combination of affordable housing and economic growth has helped No. 2 Austin, Texas, where there were 86,200 more children in 2013 than in 2000, growth of 49.3%, as well as No. 4 Charlotte, N.C. (+82,100, 32.9%).
Several of the high-ranked metro areas on our list are housing bubble hot spots that experienced rapid population growth in the first half of the last decade but then stalled out in the Recession. No. 3 Las Vegas posted 35% growth among 5 to 14 year olds from 2000 to 2010. Since 2010 its child population has expanded at a modest 2.3% rate. A similar pattern can be observed in No. 5 Phoenix.
In most of the top 10 metro areas on our list kids in the age range we looked at account for over 14% of the total population, compared to a national average of 13%. The city with the largest share of kids is No. 12 Salt Lake City, where 16.2% of the residents are between the ages of 5 and 14.
The Great American Kiddie Desert
The largest declines in the 5 to 14 cohort since 2000 have almost all occurred in the large coastal metropolitan centers, led by Los Angeles, 46th out of the 52 cities on our list, where the child population has dropped by 303,000, or 15.3%, since 2000. In the New York metro area (40th), the number of 5- to 14-year-olds fell by 238,000.
Economics alone does not explain this. Some of these metro areas, notably New York and Boston (38th, -8%), have done fairly well in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Yet they are only doing marginally better in attracting families than the (mostly) hard-hit metro areas at the bottom of our list: Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y. , Pittsburgh and Detroit. (New Orleans actually ranked last behind Buffalo, but that’s a function of population flight due to Hurricane Katrina.)
So why are otherwise thriving areas losing families? One possible explanation may come from cultural and political factors. As Austrian demographer Wolfgang Lutz has pointed out, an increasingly childless society creates “self reinforcing mechanisms” that make childlessness, singleness and one-child families increasingly predominant. In this process, which is further advanced in Japan, much of East Asia and throughout large parts of Europe, civic priorities often favor adult cultural amenities over things like parks and schools that are more important to families. Many areas that are increasingly child-free also often embrace density-oriented land use policies that lead to less affordable housing.
Of course, there’s a steady drumbeat in the media proclaiming that families with children are returning to dense cities and expensive regions. In reality, the numbers don’t add up. Among the 10 large metro areas with the lowest percentage of children are New York, Boston and San Francisco-Oakland, where the percentage of 5- to 14-year-olds is 11.5%, the lowest in the nation except for Pittsburgh (10.8%).
All else being equal, high housing prices, particularly for single-family homes, drive people with young children away. Across the country, the biggest decline in child populations found in the 2010 Census took place in the urban core and close-in suburbs of expensive metro areas, while net increases were counted almost exclusively in further out suburbs. In Los Angeles, the central city and older suburbs have had large declines in children while almost all family growth has occurred in suburbs like the Inland Empire , Irvine , the Antelope Valley and Valencia.
A Different Kind Of Divide?
Much has been written about the various divides — political, racial, cultural, religious — afflicting the country. The geography of family formation poses yet another. In some parts of the country families appear to be proliferating, notably the Southeast and Intermountain West. In others, mostly in coastal California and the Northeast, they seem to be becoming rarer.
To some extent, this parallels the “red” and “blue” divide, but not entirely. Some bluish regions have enjoyed growth in their 5 to 14 population, most notably No. 2 Austin, although this is helped largely by the booming Texas economy and liberal land regulation, particularly in the burgeoning suburban ring. Only three others slipped into the top 20 of our list: Denver (13th), greaterWashington, D.C. (17th), and Portland, Ore. (20th). Washington’s government driven job growth is doubtless a factor. Denver and Portland are more than 90% suburban and exurban, and boast housing that is relatively affordable compared to the Bay Area, Los Angeles or New York.
Far more than politics, the interplay of economics and affordability tend to drive family migration. Take San Francisco-Oakland (33rd), which has had a robust economy over the past five years, but high housing prices have slowed the growth of families. Since 2000, the number of 5- to 14-year-olds in the metro area has dropped 2.7%. A recent real estate survey showed a million dollars would buy only 1,500 square feet in San Francisco, 2,000 in Boston, 2,198 in Washington and roughly 2,300 in either New York or Los Angeles. In contrast, that amount of money could purchase over 10,000 square feet in Houston and 8,850 in Raleigh.
Perhaps more important, high housing prices also make moving into a desirable area — particularly one with good schools — very difficult. In some core cities like Los Angeles, generally only the wealthiest areas have reliably decent public schools. In other parts of the country, you can still purchase a nice house for under $250,000 and be close to excellent schools. Unless the more expensive urban areas can expand their educational choices, many families will continue to look elsewhere for the critical combination of affordable housing and decent education for their children.
Ultimately, these metro areas, so favored in the media, will face increased competition from those that can better attract young families. Even most hipsters eventually grow up, start a family, seek to buy a house and aspire to a middle-class life. Places that can attract young families will have several things going for them compared to their increasingly child-free rivals: a growing adult labor force, an expanding consumer market and a spur to the local construction industry. If demography is destiny, nowhere is this more likely the case.