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Itâ€™s not easy to raise a family in a big U.S. cityâ€”but itâ€™s not any easier anywhere else in this country
In January, a young mother wheeled her stroller into a New York City subway station thatâ€”like most New York City subway stationsâ€”had no elevator. As many city parents have done out of desperation at one time or another, she picked up the stroller and carried her baby down the dozens of stairs to the platform. The 22-year-old mother, who had a history of heart problems, fell to her death. Her 1-year-old survived.
This tragic event epitomizes how American cities are openly hostile to families, and it was the only thing I could think of when I read a story in The Atlantic this week that opens with a New York City mom trying to get her two kids and a stroller up a staircase.
â€śThe mom would fold the stroller to the size of a boogie board, then drag it behind her with her right hand, while cradling the younger and typically crying child in the crook of her left arm,â€ť writes Derek Thompson in â€śThe Future of the City is Childless.â€ť â€śIt looked like hellâ€”or, as I once suggested to a roommate, a carefully staged public service announcement against family formation.â€ť
Thompsonâ€™s essay addresses whatâ€™s become an obsession for urbanist writers, including the writers at his own publication: For all the people, attention, and money currently pouring into U.S. cities, it turns out that few of those resources are being devoted to raising the next generation of city-dwellers.
The narrative presented by Thompson is that young adults who move to big cities end up facing unsurmountable debt and housing costs, wait longer to have kids, then voluntarily leave once they decide to procreate.
San Francisco, which is cited in the story, is the most notorious example. In 2017, only 13 percent of the population was under 18, the lowest percentage of any major U.S. city. There are officially more dogs than children in San Francisco.
That statistic seems shocking until you consider a few other city stats, like the fact that one out of every 100 people in San Francisco doesnâ€™t have a home.
Across the country, many Americans are spending too much on housing to contemplate the added expense of having kids: Over 11 million Americansâ€”the populations of New York City and Chicago combinedâ€”spend more than half of their paycheck on housing costs. San Francisco might get all the headlines, but this is not a city-specific problem. Thereâ€™s not a single county in the U.S., urban or rural, where a person making minimum wage can afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment and have enough money left over to purchase basic necessities for livingâ€”let alone the necessities for two or three additional people.
In Los Angeles, where I live, rising rents and a shortage of affordable units mean that the number of families who are homeless went up again last year, even as the cityâ€™s social services placed a record number of families in supportive housing. According to a Los Angeles County report, families headed by women are more likely to be evicted, forcing them to live in overcrowded apartments, in vehicles, and on the streets.
Those families arenâ€™t leaving cities. Theyâ€™re getting left behind.
Sure, affluent parents might opt to pack up the SUV and flee to the suburbs, but the truth is that most people in this country who have children do not have that type of economic mobility. In 2016, the percentage of Americans who moved to another home during that year fell to all-time low of 11.2 percentâ€”about half the rate of domestic migration in 1965.
At the same time, Americaâ€™s suburbs are also failing families. In a recent Los Angeles Times series, columnist Steve Lopez spent weeks at an elementary school located in a corner of the San Fernando Valley lined with ranch-style homes, grassy yards, child-friendly dining options, and box-store parking lots filled with minivans. Yet a quarter of the schoolâ€™s children are homelessâ€”living in garages and motels.
In his piece, Thompson poses a handful of solutions that might spark an urban baby boom. â€śSurely, downtown areas can be made more family-friendly,â€ť he writes. â€śMayors can be more aggressive about overcoming the forces of NIMBYism by building affordable housing near downtown areas. The federal government can help.â€ť
But itâ€™s not just a laundry list of kid-friendly amenities that families need, itâ€™s giving parents the financial breathing room to enjoy them. Within