Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Many of America's cities are gaining population, but the number of school-aged children is dwindling as families opt for the suburbs.

Why it matters: A growing body of research shows the strong link between the environment where kids grow up and their ability to thrive as adults. Yet the gap between the haves and have-nots is becoming more pronounced in city centers, driving middle-class families out.

  • Neighborhood divides: Nearly 10 million American kids live in low-opportunity neighborhoods, with limited access to quality schools, parks and healthy food.
  • Child care deserts: About half of Americans live in communities where there are not enough licensed child care workers to meet the demand. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Mobile, Alabama, the child care market can only serve one-third of the total young children. High-income suburban areas are least likely to see shortages, per the Center for American Progress.
  • Housing: In most big cities, there's a shortage of housing options for middle-class families as rents increase.

By the numbers: In 2018, about 12% of children 17 and under lived in the central or principal city of a metropolitan area, down from 14.6% in 2010.

  • The percentage of children 5 and under in central cities dropped from 16% in 2010 to 13.9% in 2018, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey data.

Zooming in: In Boston, the population of school-aged children has dropped by nearly half since 1970, per a report by The Boston Foundation. Even though the city has gained about 46,000 new households in the past 40 years, just 1,000 of them have children.

  • Paul Grogan, CEO of the nonprofit, said in the report that Boston now seems to be split in two: "One of higher-income, less diverse, childless households, and the other of low-income, largely Black and Latino families in which the vast majority of the city's children live."

Government programs that target children yield higher returns on investment than programs geared toward adults, according to research by Harvard University economists Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser, who studied 133 federal and local policy changes.

  • What they found: Direct investments in low-income children's health and education pay for themselves and offer more return for each dollar than many programs for adults.
  • Investment in adult services can pay off "if those policies have positive spillover effects on children," they write.
  • One example: Vouchers allowing families to move out of high-poverty neighborhoods resulted in better environments for children and, eventually, higher earnings and more tax revenue when those children grow up, they noted.

The business case: Some local governments are partnering with the private sector and philanthropies to fill funding gaps for education or health programs, and even financing for parks.

  • "If we don't have more high schoolers graduating who want to stay in Kent County and work in Kent County, we're going to go bust," said Wayman Britt, county administrator of Kent County, Michigan, which includes Grand Rapids.

There's also an effort to increase awareness of the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, which have been shown to boost earnings for low-wage workers. The Rockefeller Foundation last month announced plans reach 4.6 million people with awareness campaigns so they know how to access the benefit.

What to watch: Children are among the hardest to count in a census, especially those under 5.

  • Ensuring high response rates among families is key for communities to receive millions of dollars in federal and state funding for children-specific programs and services.

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