The number of children between the ages of 5 and 17 has fallen by 43 percent since 1970.
The number of children between the ages of 5 and 17 has fallen by 43 percent since 1970.
Pat Greenhouse

Where have all the children gone?

Boston has added a lot of people in recent decades, but the number of school-age children has dropped dramatically.

That’s the thrust of a study set to be released Wednesday by the Boston Foundation that highlights the dwindling number of children — particularly middle class children — in an otherwise-growing and thriving city. Since 2000, according to the report, the population of school-age children in Boston has fallen by nearly 10,000 — down about one-tenth — even as the city as a whole has added 10 times that many people.

Reasons, researchers say, range from the high cost of housing to the perception that the city’s public school system is inferior. For some families, it boils down to a preference to raise their children in roomier suburbs.

Advertisement

The result of the slow-moving exodus is a city with barely half as many children as it had in 1950. And those who remain are likely to be in families that are poorer, on average, than the city as a whole.

“The demographics highlight what has almost become two separate cities within our city,” said Paul Grogan, CEO of the nonprofit Boston Foundation. “One of higher-income, less diverse, childless households, and the other of lower-income, largely black and Latino families in which the vast majority of the city’s children live.”

It’s a trend that has been building for decades, through suburbanization, families fleeing the busing crisis, and a sharp decline in Boston’s population from 1950 through 1980. But it has also happened more recently, as the city has grown back population toward its midcentury peak. Families have continued to move out, especially as their children reach school age. Today there are more children in Boston under 4 years old than between age 5 and 9, the report says.

In a city of just under 700,000 people, there are about 75,000 between the ages of 5 and 17, the report said. That number has fallen by 43 percent since 1970, the Boston Foundation found, even as the city’s population as a whole has grown 9 percent.

The situation is not unique to Boston. Birthrates have fallen across the country in recent years, and the school-age population in several costly coastal cities has dropped sharply. San Francisco and Seattle have even fewer children than Boston when measured as a share of their overall populations.

Advertisement

Still, said Luc Schuster, director of the Boston Foundation’s Boston Indicators project, the data paint a picture of a Boston that is evolving into a place where children are scarce.

“It’s a slow drip, and its been happening over many decades,” Schuster said. “Eventually, it just becomes the Boston we know.”

Under Mayor Martin J. Walsh, the city has added housing at a relatively rapid clip, his strategy to help combat rents and prices that are among the highest in the country — which factor into many families’ decision to move to less expensive suburbs.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Much of the housing that has been built during Boston’s ongoing wave of development has been smaller units — studios and one-bedrooms — aimed at twentysomethings flocking to the city for grad school and good jobs. But the Walsh administration has said it hopes the new supply will reduce demand for older — and lower-cost — family-size apartments in three-decker neighborhoods across the city.

Walsh has also poured proceeds from new development into parks and public spaces that aim to make Boston more friendly for residents of all ages, though critics point to big developments — even entire neighborhoods such as the Seaport District — that are being built without libraries, community centers, or the kind of public spaces likely to appeal to families with children.

Advertisement

As for the public school system, Walsh helped push the state to rewrite school funding formulas last year, and has committed an additional $100 million in city funds over the next three years for classroom needs. Newly appointed schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius has said additional money will be targeted at struggling schools. She also has pledged to place a greater emphasis on engaging parents and the community.

Still, school enrollment has fallen sharply since the mid-20th century, to about 66,000 students in public and charter schools, 20,000 fewer than there were in 1980. More than three-fourths of those students come from lower-income households, and just 13 percent are white, compared with 44 percent of Boston residents overall.

Altogether, Schuster said, the report illustrates a Boston that, increasingly, is not home to many children, and where too many of those who do live here are being left behind. An essentially childless Boston is not someone anyone wants, Schuster said, but it could become the reality if nothing changes.

“This raises big tough questions about who we are as a city,” he said. “Are we OK with becoming this caricature of an elite, high-income capital city with no kids? We’re not there yet, but I worry we’re moving in that direction.”