Are Children Parasites on Cities’ Finances?

Photo: Bruce Chan
Photo: Bruce Chan

No sooner did Streetsblog LA roll out its new series (and hashtag) #streetsr4families than the Washington Post asked whether it really benefits cities to attract families with kids at all. After all, wrote Lydia DePillis yesterday, while single twenty-somethings freely spend their money on $12 cocktails and $50 concert tickets, parents avail themselves of taxpayer-funded services like public schools and parks. Parasites on the system.

DePillis referenced a 2001 Brookings Institution study, “Envisioning a Future Washington,” [PDF] which put a price tag on attracting different types of new residents. The researchers found that a two-parent family with two kids would cost the city $6,200 annually, mostly because they use public schools, while a childless couple generates a net gain for the city of $13,000.

As someone who takes it on faith that children truly are an indicator species of a healthy city, reading that shook me. Could it be that we parents are, after all, a drain on the cities we love?

The topic is especially salient right now, as I’ve been engrossed in the Sightline Institute’s ongoing series, “Family-Friendly Cities.” In it, author Jennifer Langston writes at length about what cities can do to attract families with children. (More on that later.) But DePillis’s words made me suddenly uncomfortable with the whole proposition. Why should cities bend over backwards for families with kids — letting valuable real estate become children’s play areas, sullying its eateries with crayons and kids’ menus, preserving three-bedroom row houses amid the rush to build studio apartments — when those families actually end up bringing the city down?

DePillis answered her own question, of course. Parents are often in their prime earning years, and they buy expensive houses. Those houses become more expensive when the schools improve — “Trulia crunched the numbers, and found that homes in districts with highly-rated schools are a third more expensive than the metro average, while those in districts with poor schools are much cheaper,” DePillis wrote. That relegates lower-income kids to the city’s worst schools — but if we’re just looking through a lens of GDP, those pricey homes add to the city’s bottom line.

Plus, the idea that there will always be a new tide of recent grads lining up to fill the city’s luxury one-bedroom condos is suspect. If people feel forced to leave the city once they have kids, it could end up depressing DC’s population again.

Besides, DePillis wrote, the kids may stick around when they grow up and become income-earners themselves.

There’s reason to doubt how much bearing that 2001 Brookings study has on today’s reality. The researchers were looking at the kinds of families DC had in 2001, when a positive pregnancy test practically came with a house in the suburbs for people with means. But there’s a baby boom in DC right now, and I promise you those parents are spending money. Raising a family is by no means an inexpensive proposition.

While we take advantage of the public library and the pool and the playgrounds more than we did in our pre-kid days (and we can’t wait for the federally-funded Museum of Natural History’s dinosaur exhibit to re-open — in 2019), we also pay more than $1,400 a month for day care, buy new shoes for constantly growing feet, and give in to countless impulse buys anywhere that has a kids’ section. Right now, parents are spending an average of $1,151 on back-to-school shopping.

Given what parents spend on their kids’ birthday parties — clowns! horseback rides! toddler spas! — it seems clear that there’s plenty of money being made on this demographic.

  • Families are great, but wouldn’t parents presumably be finding some other (maybe less purely local) way to spend that $1400 if not on day care? Wouldn’t a few folks currently in the child care industry have found their way to other jobs serving cocktails to singletons or whatever? It’s not just the spending of money that adds to GDP, it’s the creation of new value that gets passed to someone else in exchange for cash. Kids provide incalculable value to the world in exchange for all that child care but they give their best stuff away for free, so GDP can’t measure it.

    If what we’re looking at is GDP, seems to me it’s the dependency ratio that matters. So sure, kids and retirees are a drain on GDP. But that’s a limitation of GDP, not a problem with kids and retirees.

    I’ve been loving Jennifer’s series, too.

  • Bolwerk

    Government spending by definition is not a “drain on GDP.” Government spending is a critical component of the GDP.

  • Bolwerk

    You know, there is a pretty big gulf between “does not benefis” and “parasite.” The “drain” isn’t on behalf of the parents. It’s for the children, and nearly everyone who was ever a child was a similar “drain” at some point whether they were in a city or not.

    The parasites are the suburbanites and their enablers in state and federal governments who pillage resources from the city without contributing anything economically themselves other than perhaps workers.

  • Brandon

    Even if you spend the same, more of the money from services stays in a community than if you spent it on goods. And in some central cities you still have to leave the city to go back to back to school shopping.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    I think both answers to this question are getting at the wrong issue. Sure, children cost a city more money in the short term than they bring in directly in taxes. But the same is true of lots of valuable things – every city would love for parks to be located just outside their borders, where residents can take advantage of them, but the city doesn’t have to pay for upkeep. New residents work the same way – that’s why so many cities want to be job centers, but make it incredibly hard to build housing. Silicon Valley and the entire SF Bay Area are a symptom of that – every city wants fancy jobs that pay taxes, but want the residents that need food, water, schools, parks, etc. to live somewhere else.

    The right way to think of it is that children (like residents and parks, not to mention power plants, factories, and sewage treatment centers) are something that a city needs to be provided somewhere, in order for that city to continue to thrive. Cities can try to push the costs of these things onto their neighbors, and when the costs are measured in land use (as with power plants and factories), that can even be a slightly reasonable tactic. But with these other things, we have to pay the cost somehow, and the question is just whether a city wants to pay for what is needed for its upkeep.

  • Brandon

    In the U.S, cities don’t think regionally. Most cities think they can poach the good things from their neighbors but foist off all the costs. Of course children need to live somewhere (so their parents can come to our city to work), but just not in our city. Some cities and suburbs hope that large expensive houses which appeal to parents (preserved with strictly enforced large lot zoning) will offset the cost of providing education. No city want to have low income parents which means they end up congregating usually in the central city or a few of the worse off suburbs, without the taxes needed to provide decent education. This whole issue could be solve if education wasn’t supported primary by local taxes, but we used a National tax to guarantee an appropriate level of education for every child.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    That sounds exactly right. I don’t have any strong opinions on whether the physical presence of children in a city is a good or bad thing for a city, but children certainly need to exist somewhere for a city to continue existing, so if they’re not going to be in the city (perhaps because it has been decided that they ruin all the good things of being in a city?!) then cities ought to be paying taxes to the places that are going to do the dirty work of raising children. (Of course, if it turns out that the physical presence of children is actually a boon to urbanism, so that cities benefit from their presence, then the costs of hosting children should be shared by the non-urban places, which still benefit from the existence of children in cities.)

  • Jeffrey Baker

    The idea of cities full of brunching 20-somethings is so disgusting that I just can’t stand it. One of the things I like best about NYC is that people don’t run off to the suburbs just to reproduce. As a result you see people of all ages walking down the street. When was the last time I saw a group of teenagers walking down Valencia in SF? You’ve never seen that, at least not in the last 25 years.

    To buy into the article’s premise you really have to accept a society that’s ultimately materialistic.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    I disagree. The article fairly laid out the dichotomy. If there are no close by parks or decent schools, or affordable housing, how do you keep and retain families? Basically it said if you want to keep and attract families, the city government, taxpayers, and parents all have to agree to be taxed in accordance to the services so desired. However once the taxes do go up, you may find those in the middle pushed out. How do you solve this dichotomy? Its not easy. And there are no fast answers. That’s what the article says.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Nowhere in the article does it call children parasites. So to my mind why do you need to frame this issue in such a way to make it appear that the Washington Post did not fairly cover the issue.

    The article fairly laid out the dichotomy. If there are no close by parks or decent schools, or affordable housing, how do you keep and retain families in cities.? Basically it said if you want to keep and attract families, the city government, taxpayers, and parents all have to agree to be taxed in accordance to the services so desired. However once the taxes do go up, you may find those in the middle pushed out. How do you solve this? Its not easy. And there are no fast answers. That’s what the article says.

  • Kevin Love

    “Could it be that we parents are, after all, a drain on the cities we love?”

    Could it be that if there are no children, the city will cease to exist in a generation? Or else be a real parasite by offloading the costs of the next generation onto somewhere else.

  • NoeValleyJim

    I see groups of teenagers walking down the street on 24th Street in Noe all the time. I think they feel more welcome here.

    Come by some Friday or Saturday night and check it out for yourself.

  • oooBooo

    Those who want subsidies always have good reasons why they should be subsidized. my favorite Bastiat quote, government is the great fiction by which everyone endeavors to live off everyone else.

    Instead of trying to show that somehow kids aren’t costing people without kids why not just advocate for a free market or get as close to it as possible? This way we don’t have these endless debates about what should be subsidized by who and what really is or is not subsidized.

    As the world becomes more socialized we can expect those running the collective to create more restrictions on who can have children and how many. They will cite the socialized costs and CO2 driven climate change as to why, not to mention the general issue of “overpopulation”.

  • oooBooo

    You’ll really like the newest term for children… “carbon legacies”

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Hah! You obviously never been to New Jersey with the worlds highest property taxes. The price we pay to have the best public schools in the nation. Urban planning in Jersey for the last 20 years has all been how to increase a towns tax base without attracting more families with children.

  • rg

    My wife and I live in DC, have no children and do not plan to have any. However, we are more than happy to pay our share of taxes to support public schools, pre-K, child care, etc. I shudder when I think of a society that considers paying for those basic services a “subsidy” that is best exported to neighboring jurisdictions.

  • See them all the time here in North Beach/Chinatown. My son is one of them. Not sure if you have kids, but my own experience was that I didn’t see any kids in SF at all until I had my own. Now I see them everywhere I go, it seems.

  • “Fiscal zoning” has not changed much since 1984, when Loudoun County did one of the first P&L analyses of development types. For every $1.00 in taxes received from each kind of development, the county spent this much on services:
    • $1.22 on residential
    • $0.32 on commercial
    • $0.07 on farms/forests

    This is why all local government jurisdictions love to have offices and malls (or, for that matter, apartments filled with singles or seniors) — they pay taxes but don’t consume many services, particularly since they don’t generate new schoolchildren. The last cost is huge: Here in DC, just DCPS spends $15,117 in local tax dollars per enrolled student. Any DCPS parent who pays less than that in taxes* is indeed a net drain on DC’s budget. Yes, some wealthy families probably do pay their way ($15,000 is the annual property tax bill on a $3 million house), but most families don’t. This is just accounting, not a judgment call, but it’s silly to pretend that accounting is irrelevant.

    * Bear in mind that DC, unlike most local governments, pays for an unusual number of state-level services, so DCPS accounts for only 1/6 of local spending.

  • Brandon

    Is having well educated children (who become the well educated adults) important to the nation, or are children not a benefit to anybody but their parents?

    If we agree that children are just there for their parents benefit then, we should make parents pay the full tax burden for raising a child. But If we realize that children are human beings who deserve an equal chance in life regardless of circumstances of birth and that well educated children are vital for the nations future, then we should not expect only the taxes of parents to pay for services for children. (some children are necessary, but a high birthrate would also a huge problem)

    Its ridiculous that we have education paid for primarily by local property taxes, so that cities with no kids can avoid paying for children, even though that city wants to attract the parents to work there, and in the future they depend on these kids to grow up and move there. All the benefits of a great education system without the cost. its equally unfair for wealthy suburbs to avoid paying taxes to help less well off children in the cities. There are some public goods like education which all citizens should contribute to.

  • Brandon

    Hyper local government is a problem. A store needs workers and shoppers. they have to live somewhere; commercial property can’t exist without residential properties. But under the current system its possible to have a cities with only commercial and foist the cost of the residential onto someone else. no city wants low income residents who pay little taxes, but how would those commercial properties exist without a supply of cheap labor?

  • Brandon

    Stop funding education, primarily at the local level.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I see loads of tiny tots, but the ‘rents always seem to high-tail for Marin as soon as they turn 5. Which seems weird to me, because little ones really get a lot out of the outdoors, whereas school-aged children get a lot out of the city.

  • We used to joke that upon seeing the first sonogram, the father would exclaim “It’s a Boy! We’ve got to move to Marin tomorrow!”

    Actually, SF middle and high schools are overflowing, and pretty highly rated even in competition with other schools around the country, burb or urb.

  • baklazhan

    I see groups of young teenagers a lot, walking on Clement St., especially in the after-school hours.

  • High_n_Dry

    Right? Someone has to contribute to Social Security when we, childless couples, retire. Ideally those kids will be educated, academically and culturally, so they can contribute to a prosperous society. I’m glad to contribute financially to the (while singing)… the children are our future…

  • R.A. Stewart

    I thought of this discussion of education funding and, as Brandon put it below, hyper-local government, this morning when I saw a workman cleaning off a sidewalk with a leaf blower.

    Sometimes I think I’m the only person left in the U.S. who still rakes and bags leaves. These leaf-blowers, ubiquitous come fall, could stand as a metaphor for what has become the American approach to everything: make a lot of noise, squander fossil fuel on a task well within the scope of your own renewable animal energy, and move your problem into somebody else’s yard.

  • Garl Boyd Latham

    Thank you so much for your comment. It’s truly profound!

    [By the way, you’re not the only one left!]

    Best,
    Garl

  • Steven Larson

    Perhaps we should just ask Europe what happens when young people become so self-absorbed that they forget to create the next generation. Who’s going to look after all these pampered, spoiled brats when they start wetting themeselves and need their senior citizen diapers changed? Oh, yeah, Washington will decide when it’s your time to go, too. Be careful what you wish for, young people. You just might get it.

  • Steven Larson

    Tis a shame you don’t have the best public schools in the nation. BTW, I’ve lived in 7 states and they had the best schools in the nation in all seven of those states. The nicest people, too. They kept telling me.

  • Steven Larson

    Most Americans have already decided that America’s cities are no place to raise children. In fact, they decided it in the late 1950s. Thanks for playing along.

  • Steven Larson

    And narcissistic.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

DC’s New Parents Aren’t Fleeing to the Burbs

|
Reading this sentence in a mainstream publication just validated everything I feel about the kind of parent I want to be: “It doesn’t mean millennials put parenthood second, but their definition of what makes a good parent is Mom and Dad being happy, and exposing their child to all the things that they have enjoyed.” […]

Is Your City a Great Place to Raise Kids? Could It Be?

|
Jennifer Langston of the Sightline Institute in Seattle has so far published eight articles in a series called Family-Friendly Cities. She shows that while Seattle has a lower share of the population under age 15 than the rest of the state of Washington, that gap is closing. The number of kids in Seattle is growing far […]
The playground at Swansea elementary school in Denver, with I-70 on the right. Image via Google Maps

America Builds Too Many Schools By Highways

|
One in 11 U.S. public schools are within 500 feet of a highway, exposing 4.4 million children to elevated levels of pollution, putting kids at elevated risk of developing asthma. But cheap land remains alluring to school districts, and America's system of school siting is not getting better.

Will Cities Hold on to Younger Residents as They Have Children?

|
Many American cities are proving to be more resilient than suburban areas thanks in part to the shifting preferences of today’s young people. But as USA Today reported in a talked-about article earlier this week, the cohort that has flocked to cities is now reaching a stage of life which, historically, has been more closely associated […]