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Boston seen losing school-age children

Study finds reductions greatest among city’s middle class

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO

Boston is losing its middle class, according to a study released by the Boston Foundation last week, with some of the sharpest declines in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan and South Boston.

“We are a city that’s rapidly losing families with kids,” said Luc Schuster, director of the Boston Indicators, a research center housed at The Boston Foundation that released the report. “We’re losing moderate-income families with children in particular.”

While the city’s population has increased from a low of 562,994 in 1980 to 695,926 in 2018, the number of school-age children has declined steadily over many decades, from a high of 133,187 in 1950 to 75,394 in 2018. For the decline between the 1970s and 1990s, the report cites factors including declining nationwide fertility rates, court-ordered school desegregation and white flight. For the period between 2000 and 2018, however, both white and black middle-income children left the city, a development the report’s authors attribute to rising housing costs and parental perceptions of Boston’s schools.

The decline in middle- and upper-income blacks and whites corresponds to school-age population increases in many higher-income suburbs and cities in the Boston metropolitan area including Winchester, Belmont and Wellesley.

Schuster said the increased racial and income stratification in the region doesn’t bode well for the future.

“There’s a really strong base of research that shows the benefits for kids when they attend well-integrated schools,” he said. “I think if you were an outsider looking at the system we’ve set up in the region, with intense isolation in urban schools, very different from the reverse isolation of high-income white kids in our affluent suburbs, nobody would say that’s the ideal. And yet here we are.”

A housing issue

The findings of the report come amid an unprecedented, city-wide construction boom and increasing income stratification in the city. While roughly 20% of new housing units built or under construction in Boston have some level of subsidy, the 80% of new construction that is considered market-rate is, by most accounts, aimed at people with incomes higher than that of most current Boston residents.

In new developments that populate the Seaport District, the Fenway and downtown areas, the high-priced studio and one-bedroom apartments that occupy new steel and glass towers cater to childless tech and finance sector workers. In an extreme example, a 590-square-foot studio in the South End Ink Block development rents for as much as $6,719. And even in older buildings, rents for existing tenants often jump year-to-year, making it difficult or impossible to remain.

That mismatch between what current Boston residents can afford and what developers are offering has led to what many describe as a displacement crisis. Those thought to be most affected include working-class and middle-class residents of the city.

The median rent for a one-bedroom in Boston is $2,500, according to the apartment search website Zumper. To afford that rent without spending more than a third of one’s income, a tenant would have to earn $105,000. Yet the median household income in Boston is just $62,021, according to estimates from the American Community Survey. The average black family in Boston earns just $44,700. The average Latino family earns $32,500.

Neighborhood numbers

The growing gulf between low incomes and high rents may provide some insight into the disparate rates at which neighborhoods are seeing populations of children decline. The population of children in Dorchester dropped from 26,798, or 23% of the neighborhood’s overall population in 2000, to 20,166 in 2017, just 16% of the neighborhood’s population. The declining population of school-age children in Dorchester mirrored similar drops in Mattapan, South Boston and Jamaica Plain.

It’s worth noting that in all the above neighborhoods, the percentage of school-age children is still well above the city average of only 11%.

Lori Hurlebaus, an organizer with the group Dorchester Not for Sale, says the drop in school-age children mirrors a drop in family-affordable housing in the neighborhood.

“The neighborhood was built for families,” she said. “It was a family neighborhood for a long time. And now families can’t afford to live here.”

Even in affordable housing units built in Boston under the city’s Inclusionary Development Policy, there’s little room for families.

“Sixty-two percent of them are one-bedrooms,” Hurlebaus said of the units.

In contrast to the declines in families in the city’s traditionally working-class neighborhoods, the sharpest increases in school-age children were in Back Bay, where that population nearly doubled from 388 in 2000 to 763 in 2017 and the North End, which saw an increase from 179 school-age children to 320.

Given the rapid pace of gentrification in some of Boston’s neighborhoods, the Boston Indicators Project data, which doesn’t extend beyond 2017, may have missed some neighborhood trends.

In 2019, for instance, East Boston High School lost $1.4 million in funding due to declining student enrollment. In 2018, the school had 1,189 students enrolled, according to state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data. In the 2019-2020 year, that number had declined to 1,084, a drop that mirrored declines in other East Boston schools. Some, including District 1 City Councilor Lydia Edwards, attributed the decline to low-income families moving to nearby cities such as Everett and Revere as rents in East Boston rise sharply.

According to the Indicators Project report, Chelsea, Everett and Revere collectively saw a 29% increase in their school-age population between 2000 and 2017.

Among the neighborhoods that have seen gains in the population of school-age children are West Roxbury and Hyde Park. Both neighborhoods saw gains in the number of children. In West Roxbury, while the number of children rose, their percentage of the overall population remained stable at 13%. In Hyde Park, a neighborhood where many black and Latino families have bought homes in recent years, the number of children rose to 6,431, an increase of nearly 400, representing 17% of the neighborhood’s population.

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