Sept. 11 –Last month, a smart young writer at the Washington Post named Lydia DePillis wrote a provocative article about cities and families that lit up every urbanists social-media feed. In it, she observed something parents have known for a long time: Kids are expensive. “Why, from a purely economic standpoint, would a city on the make try to attract families at all?” she asked.The question stopped me in my tracks. For Americas comeback cities, the ability to land and keep middle-class families is considered a badge of success. Over the last decade, Philadelphia has definitely become a city “on the make.” It has proudly drawn thousands of new residents of childbearing age — that millennial generation — and showered them with the amenities they love, from bike lanes to beer gardens to spray parks, in the hope theyll stay and raise families here.
The irony, of course, is that this week the citys grossly underfunded schools just barely managed to open on schedule. Basic educational amenities that suburban districts take for granted, such as guidance counselors and nurses, are a luxury. Even if the legislature approves Philadelphias $2 -a-pack tax on cigarettes, it may not be enough to get the district through the year, never mind next year or the year after.Philadelphia has undergone such a quick and heady transformation, as housing construction exploded and the streets filled again with people, that it hasnt spent much time asking itself, what next? Can this recovery be sustained once millennial parents start confronting the first day of kindergarten in a classroom with 35 kids and no teachers aide?DePillis essay startled because it suggested the parenthood-and-cities thing isnt all its cracked up to be.
To be clear, she isnt advocating that cities actively discourage families. She simply reminds us that providing for children diverts resources that could instead be spent to make cities more attractive to lower-cost folks, i.e., affluent professionals. Citing a 2001 study, she notes that a traditional two-parent, two-child household cost Washington $6,200 a year in services, while a childless couple generated a net gain of $13,000 .
When I mentioned her piece to a couple of planners and educators, I got the kind of response that must have greeted Jonathan Swifts Modest Proposal. I might as well have suggested that Philadelphia kids be served up as a haute dish during Restaurant Week.
But, when you think about it, isnt Philadelphia effectively embracing the exact antifamily policy that DePillis describes?