The Most and Least Kid-Filled Cities

The percent of American households with children has slowly declined over the past decade.
by | November 13, 2015
Kids walking to school in Seattle, where less than one in every five households has children. (David Kidd)

For years, many large cities have struggled to attract families with children. Some forego city living for houses out in the suburbs, favoring less expensive housing or larger living spaces. Others may balk at living in urban centers plagued by high crime rates or poor public schools.

Yet a handful of big cities across the country have a relatively large number of families. The latest Census estimates depict wide variation in the presence of families with children, ranging from more than half of all households in Laredo, Texas, to less than one in every five households in San Francisco and Seattle.

We’ve compiled a series of data contrasting the presence of families in cities, showing jurisdictions where they’re most and least common.

Families take into account a number of considerations when they’re deciding where to live, and many factors influence their presence in cities accordingly. One major determinant is a city’s housing stock. Some cities lack a supply of adequate housing with enough bedrooms to accommodate families. In the hottest housing markets, it’s the high price tag that frequently pushes lower- and middle-income families out of cities. (See our recent report on family housing in cities.)

One basic measure of families in cities is the Census Bureau’s estimated share of households with children under age 18. As of 2014, children occupied 32 percent of American households, a figure that's slowly declined over the past decade.

Of the 100 most populated cities, the only jurisdictions where children resided in more than half of households were Laredo, Texas, and Santa Ana, Calif. Nearly all cities where they're most prevalent are found in California, Texas and Arizona.

SOURCE: Governing calculations of 2014 American Community Survey data for 100 largest cities. Note that some cities have higher margins of error as these are one-year estimates.

Part of the differences have to do with demographics. Hispanic households, in particular, are more likely to have children since Hispanic women have far higher birth rates than other demographic groups. In eight of the top 10 cities with the most households with children, Hispanics make up more than 40 percent of the population.

Laredo, for example, sits just across the border from Mexico, and 95 percent of its residents are Hispanic. Suburban sprawl also isn’t as much of an issue there as in some of the more developed urban regions elsewhere.

Conversely, cities tend to have fewer children if they’re home to more retirees or older households. This likely plays a role in places like Scottsdale, Ariz., and Pittsburgh -- two cities with relatively large populations over age 60.

Part of how cities fare in the years to come will depend on whether Millennials, who flocked to urban areas in recent years, migrate to suburbs. Demographers and city officials have offered different reports so far. In the District of Columbia, an analysis of tax returns showed that new parents were more likely to leave than other residents during the first four years after having their first child.

A distinction should also be made between densely populated urban centers and larger cities that are more suburban in nature like Gilbert, Ariz., an affluent suburb of Phoenix, where nearly half of all households have children, just behind Laredo and Santa Ana.

By contrast, most jurisdictions where children are least likely to reside are either densely populated northern cities surrounded by sprawling suburbs or high-cost coastal cities.

For a look at differences across more similar jurisdictions, here’s a comparison of the 50 largest cities, grouped by population density:

City Density Share With Children   City Density Share With Children
Density: 10,000+ / sq. mile            
New York 28,056 29.5%   Boston 13,589 22.4%
Chicago 11,960 28.3%   Washington, DC 10,793 20.4%
Philadelphia 11,635 27.1%   San Francisco 18,187 17.8%
Miami 11,997 25.0%        
Density: 5,000-9,999 / sq. mile            
San Jose 5,754 39.0%   Cleveland 5,013 27.3%
Long Beach, Calif. 9,417 33.8%   Baltimore 7,694 26.6%
Milwaukee 6,238 32.7%   Minneapolis 7,544 23.6%
Los Angeles 8,383 31.3%   Seattle 7,962 19.6%
Density: 3,000-4,999 / sq. mile            
Fresno, Calif. 4,609 41.4%   Omaha 3,514 30.2%
San Antonio 3,117 35.3%   San Diego 4,247 30.1%
Dallas 3,762 33.5%   Detroit 4,903 30.0%
Houston 3,737 32.9%   Columbus 3,851 29.7%
Las Vegas 4,518 32.7%   Austin 3,064 27.4%
Sacramento 4,955 32.3%   Denver 4,339 26.6%
Raleigh 3,078 31.2%   Portland, Ore. 4,643 25.2%
Mesa 3,405 31.0%   Atlanta 3,425 20.7%
Density: <3,000 / sq. mile            
Fort Worth 2,391 39.5%   Tulsa 2,029 30.2%
El Paso 2,660 39.0%   Jacksonville 1,142 30.2%
Virginia Beach 1,811 36.4%   Memphis 2,085 29.8%
Phoenix 2,975 34.9%   Nashville 1,355 29.6%
Wichita 2,438 34.3%   Louisville 1,884 28.7%
Charlotte 2,721 32.9%   Indianapolis 2,355 28.6%
Oklahoma City 1,023 31.9%   Tucson 2,329 27.6%
Colorado Springs 2,292 31.8%   Kansas City, Mo. 1,495 27.4%
Albuquerque 2,968 30.5%   New Orleans 2,268 22.4%
SOURCE: Governing calculations of 2014 Census estimates. Population densities refer to square miles of land area.

Cities such as San Jose and Fresno, Calif., are both characterized by relatively high concentrations of families with children given their population densities. By comparison, less than a quarter of households have children in Atlanta and New Orleans, despite the fact that those cities aren’t as dense.

New York might best be considered in its own separate category given how much both its population and density dwarf all other cities. The city’s diverse demographics, along with the large number of rent-controlled apartments that make living in the city affordable for many families who would otherwise be priced out, likely help boost New York's totals.

One more way to gauge how well cities appeal to families is to compare them to their surrounding jurisdictions.

Significant disparities in the presence of families exist in some regions. As one would expect, these tend to be particularly evident in the nation’s most expensive cities. In the San Francisco metro area, for example, households are about twice as likely to have children if they’re located outside the city. Seattle officials have similarly long sought to boost the city's supply of affordable family housing.

A different set of factors are at play in Atlanta, which trailed its metro area more than any other city reviewed (in terms of percentage-point differences). Families with children account for just over one-fifth of city households, compared to 38 percent for the rest of the metro area. One contributing factor is likely suburban sprawl: The region ranked as the second most sprawling metro area nationally in a Smart Growth for America report last year.

Of course, a litany of other considerations, such as the quality of schools, built environment and proximity to jobs further influence how well cities attract and retain families.

This table shows differences in shares of city households with children compared to surrounding metro areas (with city data subtracted). Census estimates are shown for metro areas' largest cities.

SOURCE: Governing calculations of 2014 American Community Survey data. Data shown for most populous city in larger metro areas. Data was excluded for cities where households outside of the city account for less than one-third of metro area households.