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No kidding: Minneapolis has a low population of children

As a share of the total population, there are fewer kids in Minneapolis than St. Paul, Chicago and New York City.

school buses
Between the 1920s and 2017, the share of households in Minneapolis made up of parents living with their kids declined from a third to less than a fifth.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley

In recent years, Minneapolis city leaders have set a goal of growing the city’s population.

There are two ways to do that: One is to bring new residents from somewhere else. The other is for Minneapolitans to have more kids.

The latter strategy might present a problem, considering Minneapolis’ current kid count. There are fewer households with kids (as a proportion of the total population) in Minneapolis than in Minnesota as a whole. There are fewer in Minneapolis than St. Paul. In fact, Minneapolis is behind many major U.S. cities in terms of households with children. And Minneapolis’ numbers have been dropping for decades.

So why aren’t there more minors in the Mill City?

Fewer kids

Between the 1920s and 2017, the share of households in Minneapolis made up of parents living with their kids declined from a third to less than a fifth.

That’s not unique to Minneapolis. The share of households with kids has been declining in the U.S. as a whole in recent years as fertility rates drop: people are having fewer children and more people are having no children at all.

Adults living with own children, 1920 to 2017
Data show households where adults live with their own children, which excludes children living with grandparents or others as guardians, based on the decennial Census from each year except 2017, which comes from the American Community Survey. Data not available for 1970.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, IPUMS

But it’s not just that. Since the middle of the last century, families with children have increasingly moved to suburbs rather than remain in cities.

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Families with the means to move out of cities have been doing so in large numbers since the post-World War II era, said Alexandra Lange, the architecture critic for Curbed and the author of “The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids.”

Several factors contributed to the rapid suburbanization of U.S. metro areas in the post-war years. Relatively new 30-year mortgages and the GI bill made homeownership attainable for more Americans. A baby boom left young parents looking for places to raise their kids, and Civil Rights era reforms, including the integration of schools following 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, spurred white flight to the suburbs.

While early, Levittown-style suburban tract homes didn’t include a lot of extra space, the ranch-style houses in vogue in the ’60s were bigger, making room for new ideas about what kids needed: playrooms, and often a bedroom for each kid, Lange said.

“The expectations get raised and then it’s harder to fulfill those expectations in an apartment in a city,” Lange said.

In Minneapolis, there’s a dropoff between the share of the population made up by children under 5 and the share of the population age 5 to 9, suggesting many families are moving before their kids hit school age.

Children are much more common in the Twin Cities suburbs than in the cities. Suburbs like Lakeville, Shakopee, Woodbury and Brooklyn Park have about twice the share of households with kids Minneapolis does.

Households with children by Minneapolis/St. Paul suburb
Data show share of households that include one or more person under the age of 18.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

But while dropping fertility rates and suburbanization can help explain why fewer households have kids – especially in the cities, it doesn’t explain why Minneapolis has fewer households with kids than other big cities.

Minneapolis

Today, the share of households with any members under 18 in Minneapolis is 23 percent. That’s even lower than in Chicago (27 percent),  New York and Los Angeles (30 percent) and St. Paul (32 percent), but higher than in Seattle (20 percent) or San Francisco (19 percent).

Share of households with children, select cities
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, IPUMS

There are a few potential reasons Minneapolis sticks out, said Megan Dayton, senior demographer at the Minnesota State Demographic Center. Part of it likely has to do with the city’s racial and ethnic composition.

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Women who are white have the lowest fertility rate of women of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S. Minneapolis is whiter (60 percent) than St. Paul (52 percent) or New York City (32 percent).

“So that kind of, to me, explains some of the difference we’re seeing,” Dayton said.

Another possible factor: young people don’t tend to move to expensive West Coast metros like San Francisco — where people like to joke that there are more dogs than kids — or Seattle, to raise kids.

Relative to those cities, Minneapolis is more affordable. And the traffic isn’t as bad.

People who want to work in the cities and raise their kids elsewhere don’t necessarily have to commit to spending hours in the car every day.

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Houses can also be significantly cheaper in the suburbs than in some Minneapolis neighborhoods.

Keeping kids

Of course, there’s the question of whether having more or less kids matters to cities. Lange thinks it does.

“We don’t often talk about age diversity, but in cities where everyone’s the same age and they move through quickly, it can become a monoculture,” she said. “It often means people aren’t as invested politically or economically in a city so they may ignore things or use their income to get out of things.”

Building kid-friendly cities is important in keeping families in cities, said Brent Toderian, a city planning consultant and former chief planner in Vancouver, Canada, a city that has significantly increased the number of families with children living in its urban core.

There are three factors, Toderian said, that can help encourage families to stay in cities.

The first is housing. Vancouver currently has a requirement that at least 25 percent of new housing units have at least two bedrooms, and at least 10 percent have at least three bedrooms, Toderian said.

“If not for that condition, you would not get two or three bedroom units built, not because they aren’t viable but because they aren’t as profitable per square foot,” he said.

The second is amenities. Parents are unlikely to want to live in a downtown if all the child care facilities, preschools and schools are far away.

“You may have housing that can fit families, but if families have to go outside the downtown for everything families need, that’s a problem,” he said.

The third factor in attracting families, Toderian said, is the public realm. Things like playgrounds and streets that are easy to navigate with kids.

Urban opportunities

Ryan and Catherin Gau grew up in the suburban communities, he in Monticello and she in Eden Prairie. While attending the University of Minnesota, they fell in love with Minneapolis. In 2001, they bought a house in Minneapolis’ Nokomis neighborhood and settled in.

When their eldest child was three, they put the Nokomis house up for sale, with the thought of moving to the suburbs.

“I think it was what we thought we had to do. We’d heard stories of peers of ours who were maybe a little older or the same age having children. It was sort of the natural progression,” Ryan Gau said. But after the house was on the market for about two months,“we thought ‘what are we doing?’”

They loved their neighborhood and they still loved living in Minneapolis.

As the kids got older it came time to think about schools. Gau, a teacher, said Minneapolis schools have lessons to teach his kids that they wouldn’t be as likely to learn in suburban schools, where more of the students would look like them.

“As a teacher myself, I didn’t buy into the narrative that city schools are bad and suburban schools are good,” he said.

Now in eighth and fourth grade, the couple’s kids are at Minneapolis’ Keewaydin and Wenonah schools. The family plans to send their kids to Roosevelt when they hit high school.

Outside of school, Gau says his kids have opportunities they wouldn’t in the suburbs. They can hop on their bikes and easily get to Nokomis Beach or the coffee shop down the street to meet friends.

“We’ve had a pretty unstructured summer with my children. They text a friend, they make plans and they go,” he said.