A sharp decline in children is dramatically reshaping the city
IN A 2011 Boston Globe op-ed, columnist Scot Lehigh asked: “Where are the snow shovelers of yesteryear?” He suggested that the once-eager entrepreneurs must be more consumed by Facebook, texting, and video games than by making a few quick dollars trudging through the snow and slush. This winter’s snowfall has many Bostonians echoing Lehigh’s question. We crunched some numbers and now we have an answer for him: The kids just aren’t there.
In the Dorchester of the 1950s and ’60s in which one of us (LSD) grew up, it was not unusual for teenage boys (and sometimes girls) to have odd jobs around the neighborhood, helping the elderly by taking out the trash, and in the winter, shoveling snow. City neighbors today often remark that there are not many young people available to do such chores. It certainly was the case this past winter. An analysis of the city census helps to tell the tale.
Boston, not unlike San Francisco, Washington DC, Manhattan, Seattle, and other bustling, vibrant cities full of college graduates, is becoming devoid of children of school age. Thirty-five percent of Boston’s population is aged 20-34, a greater proportion than in any other major city in the country. As millennials move into Boston neighborhoods, household size continues to decrease. Millennials are marrying later and having fewer children than their predecessors. Whether the trend is called gentrification or depopulation, it is a fact. Meanwhile, as a report released this week by The Boston Foundation shows, Boston housing costs continue to push upward, further squeezing middle-class families out of the market.
Many demographers believe that Boston’s population bottomed out in the mid-1970s, within a few years of the court ordered school desegregation which resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of students in the Boston Public Schools. As recently as the early 1970s, there were about 100,000 students in the Boston Public Schools. This was down from a high of 143,000 students 40 some years earlier. School populations are impacted by many different demographic trends, including childbirth. In the case of the high water mark in the early 1930s, these were children born during the prosperous 1920s. Not surprisingly, fewer children are born during economic hard times and also during times of war. Therefore, the school population would have been anticipated to diminish shortly after that. Simultaneously, there was the construction of a network of parochial schools, which educated thousands of young people, often 50 to a classroom. It’s possible that, at its peak, the city population may have included no fewer than 200,000 students of school age.
Boston is not your grandfather’s city. Consider Halifax Street in Jamaica Plain, a street full of two-deckers in the heart of what was once a bustling Blessed Sacrament Parish full of large families. A comparison of the 2010 Census and the 1930 Census shows that three times more school age children lived on Halifax Street in the 1930s than do today.
We dug a little deeper into current data on residents of a larger six-street area including and surrounding Halifax Street. We used MCAS information to determine that, of the 34 school-age children living on these streets, a traditional middle-class area, only 16 attended public schools in 2013.
There are many reasons for these changes. Indeed, for a host of reasons, family sizes are smaller, not only in Boston but across the country. In 1950, the average household size in Boston was 3.39; in 2010, it was 2.26. The only possible exceptions to the decline in household size, other than Orthodox Jews and Mormons, are recent immigrants, especially those who are devout Catholics.
What is troubling to us, however, is that as a result of these demographic changes, Boston is becoming not only a city without young people to shovel snow for those of us with arthritic hands and bad backs, but also a city which has a strikingly reduced number of young people participating in Little League, youth hockey, scout groups, and all of those other bedrock institutions that cement neighborhoods and create a sense of community.
Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, and others have written extensively about such phenomena. Sadly, although it is difficult for the census to track this, we know that in neighborhoods across the city, among people from certain socioeconomic backgrounds, there is a robust interest in living in the city until a family’s oldest child is ready for school, at which point the decision is made to seek alternatives to public school, or, most likely, move out of the city.
In neighborhoods such as those in which we live, there are large numbers of infants and young children, large numbers of single, educated younger people, large numbers of couples (gay and straight) without children, and large numbers of empty nesters who, in most cases, have moved in from the suburbs and can afford to pay more for housing. A recent report from the Taubman Center at the Kennedy School at Harvard confirms that many younger people now choose to live near transit and without an automobile.
Boston is becoming a city of the affluent. The Census tells us that the real per capita income in the metropolitan area is $71,936, more than $20,000 higher than the national average. The real per capita income in Boston is only exceeded by San Francisco and San Jose, California; Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Casper, Wyoming; Washington, DC; Fairfield County, Connecticut; Naples, Florida; and Midland, Texas. Who would have thought that Boston would be competing with those benefiting from the residency of the affluent elderly, oil barons, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, or hedge fund managers? Not unlike Boston, in locations such as Washington, DC, and San Francisco, there are also many families that do not include any children. That is the reality of modern urban life. The major change in recent decades is that much of this affluence is now in the city – not in the suburbs. A recent real estate prospectus suggested that within one mile of the Boston Seaport district, the average household income exceeds $107,000 and 41 percent of the population falls between the ages of 18 and 34. Simple economics suggests that families without children can afford to pay more for housing than families with children.
In 1974, Frank S. Levy, Arnold Meltsner, and Aaron Wildavsky wrote a long since forgotten volume entitled Urban Outcomes: Schools, Streets, and Libraries. It dealt with what happened in Oakland as it was transformed from a city of middle-class people to a city of poor people. Expenditures for fire and police accelerated, while those for libraries, especially, declined. In a city with fewer children, expenditures for libraries and parks and other recreational activities are likely to suffer, thus providing another reason for families with children to move elsewhere.
A great city should amend its zoning code to accommodate its artists. A great city should do somersaults to accommodate its bicyclists.Shouldn’t a great city also do whatever it can to be more welcoming to families with children?
Lawrence S. DiCara is partner at Nixon Peabody in Boston and a former Boston City Council president. James Sutherland is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Northeastern University. Samuel T. Adams, a 2014 graduate of Boston University, is a fan service coordinator for the Boston Red Sox.