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Originally published December 16, 2010 at 9:38 PM | Page modified December 18, 2010 at 8:28 AM

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Young, hip Seattle still very short on children

Recent census data indicate Seattle has the lowest concentration of households with children among the major cities, except San Francisco; the fewest number of people per household; and one of the highest rates of people living alone.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Where the kids aren't

AMONG THE NATION'S largest cities, these 10 have the lowest rates of households with children.

San Francisco: 18.1 percent

Seattle: 19.8 percent

Washington, D.C. : 22.1 percent

Boston: 23.4 percent

Portland: 25.3 percent

Denver: 25.5 percent

Baltimore: 28.7 percent

Greater Nashville: 28.7 percent

Austin: 29.2 percent

Philadelphia: 29.8 percent

Source: American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau

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There's something missing from many Seattle neighborhoods: the sound of children's laughter.

Recent census data indicate Seattle is continuing a decades-long trend of having the lowest concentration of children among all the major U.S. cities, except San Francisco.

Less than 20 percent of all Seattle households included children younger than 18, compared with 34 percent nationally and 33 in Washington state.

Seattle also has one of the nation's highest rates of married couples without children and one of the highest rates of people living alone.

"We are still overwhelmingly a childless city," said Shelly Lundberg, a senior professor of economics at the University of Washington. But"the trend is holding steady," she said. "We're not becoming any more childless than we used to be."

This idea of a Seattle unfriendly to children has been the focus of some debate over the last three decades as sociologists, educators and demographers have offered up myriad explanations for why this trend exists, and persists.

Some of their reasons — a perception that schools are worse in the big city and neighborhoods are less safe — would apply not just to Seattle but to urban areas across America that tend to see proportionately fewer children than their suburbs.

Seattle of the 1960s had nearly twice the number of children the city has today. Its child gap took hold in the '70s, as many white families took "flight" to the suburbs in search of "better" schools and later in reaction to forced busing.

It leveled off in the 1980s but persisted nonetheless, as about a third of couples having babies were leaving for the suburbs by the time their children were old enough to attend school, said Seattle demographer Richard Morrill.

In the 1990s and the early part of the past decade, higher housing prices drove families farther away in search of roomier and more affordable homes.

In the past five years or so, urban revitalization has meant more of them were coming back.

Officials with the Seattle School District said they saw enrollment begin to increase in 2008, after 10 years of decline.

But Morrill said growth-management policies in the city that saw conversion of old houses into apartments, condos and town houses made housing more attractive to empty-nesters or childless younger couples seeking the trappings of city life than to families with children.

The city and its many hip, vibrant neighborhoods are a magnet, too, for young, childless professionals moving here to start careers or remaining after graduating from local colleges.

"Let's face it," Morrill said, "Seattle is an attractive place to live."

Lundberg offers a different perspective on the persistently high childless rate in cities like San Francisco and Seattle: Space is limited and pricey. Both cities are "geographically concentrated," she said, lacking the kind of sprawl you might find in cities like Los Angeles or Columbus, Ohio.

Even in a place like New York City, with its five boroughs, Lundberg said, there's more housing diversity, and families are able to find affordable homes.

While school quality remains an issue, "what really stands out is the housing costs," she said. "If you're comparing Seattle to Pittsburgh, this is a very expensive city."

The household findings are part of the American Community Survey of data collected between 2005 and 2009 and released Tuesday.

The data show that while Seattle has added 9 percent more residents since 2000, its child population grew only by 4 percent.

Mako Fitts, assistant professor of sociology at Seattle University, noted a decline in the number of very young children — those under age 3 — and pointed out that while Seattle's birthrate is lower than the nation's, it is higher for women over 35.

"Which could mean that highly educated, upwardly mobile women are putting off childbirth until they are older," she said.

But even with the low concentration of children, she said, there's significant civic discourse over issues that directly impact families and children, such as raising the quality of education.

"Institutions of higher learning, government and the medical community are all now more interested in education as an issue."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

Staff reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this report.

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