My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Friday, July 08, 2005

There are no children here

Before the O'Connor resignation and the return of al Quaeda, the big news around here was that the Census Bureau's guess is that Chicago's population is shrinking again. After growing by about 4% in the 1990s, the Bureau estimates that the city has lost about 2% of its population since 2000. In fact, almost all of the older big cities have begun to lose population again. Does this mean that the apparent resurgence of big American cities in the 1990s was an illusion?

We could be getting a bit carried away here. After all, proportionally speaking the declines are very small. Fourteen thousand people are a drop in the bucket in Chicago. And anyway, the Census Bureau went right on predicting declines throughout the 1990s until the actual head count proved them wrong - and the process still undercounted big city residents by quite a bit, since the insistence by Congress that the Bureau not use sampling meant that many immigrants and other marginalized populations were missed.

So the Bureau may or may not be correct that the city is shrinking in absolute terms. But they are basing their projections on pretty valid stuff. They have correctly identified the two big demographic trends which are pulling the population in two directions: an increase in the number of housing units, and the decrease in average family size.

In plain English, most people who live here have been under the impression that the city was growing, due to the ubiquitious construction of new housing, which has spread to neighborhoods like Garfield Park and Englewood, previously left for dead since the days of redlining. But while it's true that the number of households has been slowly expanding, it's also true that the average family size has been falling, which may be driving the population down.

It works like this. Ten years ago, that old two-flat on your street was home to a family of four and a family of three. It was torn down to build three modern condos, which now house two yuppies each. The number of units has increased from two to three, but the number of residents on the lot has fallen from seven to six. Something very similar has happened to the city as a whole. The result is a net outmigration from the city - the families who are leaving are larger than those moving in. This was true even during the population growth of the 1990s, when more people moved out than in, but the population grew anyway because there were more births than deaths. But those gains may be short lived, since families with children are the group most likely to move out.

Let's look at the city which has lost the most population since 2000. San Francisco already has the smallest proportion of children of any city in the United States. Just 14.5 percent of the city's population is 18 and under. And a recent survey shows 40 percent of the city's remaining parents are considering moving out in the next year. What's going on?

The AP story (I just linked to it, ya bums!) indicates that the obvious first guess is off base - while the city's large gay population may have some role in it's relative childlessness, gay and lesbian San Franciscans are in fact increasingly raising children. The problem seems to be in the real estate "market."*
Another reason San Francisco’s children are disappearing: Family housing in the city is especially scarce and expensive. A two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot starter home is considered a bargain at $760,000.

Things are not quite so bad here in Chicago, but we still have a situation in which every bedroom in a home, whether rented or owned, requires a full-time job to pay for it. So a two bedroom needs two employed people,etc. One reason it's difficult to raise children here is that there's simply nowhere to put them. And while older houses like mine once routinely housed large families, by middle class American standards there's just not enough room here for little ones.

This in part has spurred the increased construction of larger homes and condos in the city, especially close to amenities like parks and Lake Michigan. But the expense of these places, plus the perception that schools are unsafe and terrible, and the widespread fear of black people that places many affordable neighborhoods on an unofficial no go list for white, asian and latino families, have all led young families to leave the city in droves as their children reach school age.

So while Chicago is clearly not going the way of Detroit, it is failing to thrive. And a childless city and segration of the population by age and stage of life may have political and cultural consequences worth contemplating.

For one thing, families get to vote their children in Congress. Because congressional districts are drawn up according to the number of residents, not adults or citizens or voters. So if you're in a child-dense area, your vote counts more because there are fewer voters per Representative. This leads to a pattern of urban areas helping to elect statewide officeholders, but only getting a minority of their state's congressional seats. But that's a policy wonkish complaint. A bigger problem is that by segregating communities by lifestyle, we lose interest in the needs of other people, be they minorities or parents or the elderly, and we lose the sense of identity and continuity that comes from a multigenerational community.

Also, having grown up in the burbs I can tell you firsthand what a bad idea it is. For some reason there are many people who think they know so much about how the world should be that the deserve the power to control what their children see and hear and learn about the world in order to keep them safe and teach them values. The result has been to convince their offspring in the existence of a smiling, happy, traditional America that never really existed outside of Norman Rockwell paintings. Traditional America was racist, oppressive, violent, and for most Americans, desperately poor and a struggle for survival. To say "except for the bigotry, violence, poverty and oppression it was a pretty good society" is like saying "except for the Hundred Years War it was a pretty good century."**

On a happy note, I write this after hearing the news that there are at least two new babies in this city over the last few days. Congratulations to Thistles and Winnemac, and to Dayna!

*Yeah, I hate ironic quotes too, but I can't bear to discuss real estate without pointing out somehow the huge role that government policies have had in shaping the market. If you believe that the patterns of construction we have built up in this country are the result of consumer tastes and supply and demand, you're out of your mind.

**Apologies to Molly Ivins.

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