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Boston Is Losing Its Children — What’s At Stake, And What Has Already Been Lost

A group of elementary school students from Paige Academy in Roxbury visit the Shaw Memorial at the Boston Common in 2013 to learn about the 54th Regiment. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A group of elementary school students from Paige Academy in Roxbury visit the Shaw Memorial at the Boston Common in 2013 to learn about the 54th Regiment. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men.” Set in a dystopian future where infertility has given the human race a literal expiration date, the movie is about what happens to a society when the future fades out of sight and people embrace nihilism.

Children, the movie seems to suggest, are the raison d’etre of our constant struggle to make life better. Even if you don’t have kids of your own — as many of my generational peers do not and will not — it’s possible to be humbled by having kids around. Knowing that there are always more little humans on the way can inspire people to think beyond themselves and do things that benefit humanity. It can be a tonic for loneliness, depression and other afflictions that ail us.

Try to imagine a world without laughter echoing from playgrounds. I can’t think of a time in my life where this soundtrack wasn’t playing somewhere — I can’t imagine life without it.

Except now, as a resident of Boston, I have to.

A new study by The Boston Foundation offers a chilling vision of Boston’s future, so far as kids and families are concerned. As the Boston Globe housing reporter Tim Logan wrote, “Boston has grown by about 100,000 people [in the last two decades]. But it has about 10,000 fewer school age kids. Where have all the children gone?” The answer, according to the study, is that families with kids are being pushed out of Boston, into less expensive (but still gentrifying) suburbs, at such a seismic rate that in the near future, children might not have a place here.

This might sound hyperbolic, but it’s the simple conclusion of The Boston Foundation’s report, and it’s substantiated by data.

School enrollment rates in Boston have plummeted since the mid-20th century. Roughly 20,000 students — mostly from low-income households — have been lost. But the total number of children living in Boston, irrespective of their school enrollment, is far more disturbing. Of the 700,000 or so people living in the city, only 75,000 of them are between 5 and 17 years old. That’s barely 10%, and it’s a staggering 43% drop from the number of children living in Boston 50 years ago, in 1970.

Lately, there’s been so much reporting about the forces driving thousands of Boston residents into the suburbs. But let’s remind ourselves of the obvious: the housing we’re building is mostly designed for well-off young professionals, public housing and even housing vouchers have been painfully under-used in recent decades, and the decision-making class of Boston can’t seem to reconcile its fealty to the markets, with the idea that cities should be more than giant business districts.

Consider the Seaport, a new neighborhood with plenty of mixology bars and co-working spaces, but not many of the things that families with children need, such as public parks, libraries or even a grocery store. As the Globe’s Spotlight team reminded us in 2017, the Seaport project was a chance to create a neighborhood for all Bostonians, including children. Some $18 billion in taxpayer money was funneled into the Seaport, on the premise that the new neighborhood would be a hub for innovation and an economic development boon for all of Boston. Instead, it’s become home to luxury apartments and one of the wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods in the city.

There are several local examples of the development and gentrification that’s turning Boston into a childless city, while also hurting surrounding communities too. There's the fact that many of the new apartments and condos built recently are either sitting empty, or being used as havens for investors.

The Boston Foundation’s report is not a warning. It’s reminder that the epidemic displacement of families ... has been happening here in Boston for decades.

Lesser known are the ripple effects that the Boston housing affordability crisis is having for "gateway cities." Just one example of many: in Lynn a youth education center is being replaced by a luxury apartment complex that will boast, among other amenities, an indoor golf simulator.

It’s Boston’s turn to decide what we do with this report, and how we reckon with the future that it predicts.

As a millennial without any kids, paying below-average rent but living in a place that would not be remotely suitable for a family, I’ve tried to offset my own impact on the housing situation by learning (and writing about) local activist organizations such as City Life/Viva Urbana. That organization has been fighting to protect families from evictions and to advance more equitable housing policies, such as municipal rent control and expanded tenant protections. Groups like City Life/Viva Urbana are showing our leaders what needs to be done to protect and sustain families who, against the odds, are still living here. Their voices and ideas should be amplified.
 
The Boston Foundation’s report is not a warning. It’s reminder that the epidemic displacement of families that we've seen in cities like San Francisco and Seattle has been quietly happening right here in Boston for decades.

It doesn't have to be this way. Boston is a city where structural forces like capitalism and racism have sometimes been tempered by people with a genuine commitment toward social responsibility. This is an age-old battle that's been fought in places such as the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, which came close to shuttering in 2017 due to funding shortfalls, or the state's Department of Conservation and Recreation, which is currently in question by Governor Baker's latest budget. The green spaces in Boston where the public can still roam are a reminder of what's at stake.

Unless Boston aggressively confronts our housing and transportation crises head on, the playgrounds that have not yet been replaced by craft beer gardens and bocce ball courts could one day become empty and silent.

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Miles Howard Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Miles Howard is a freelance writer who covers culture, travel and transformational politics.

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