April 07, 2006

Say It Ain't So, Joe

I picked up a copy of the March issue of Seattle Magazine the other day, and happened across an article (print only, I'm afraid) by the estimable Joe Follansbee.  The article claims that Seattle suffers from an inferiority complex:  whenever Seattle residents compare their home town with Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, BC, they always decide that Seattle comes up short. Follansbee argues that Seattle should just learn to love itself just as it is, rather than falling victim to sibling rivalry.

Interesting enough idea.  But there's one thing that sticks in my craw:  in trying to puncture the reputation of neighboring cities, Follansbee claims that Portland has an unusally low number of children, compared with its neighboring metropolises:

Portland's downtown Pearl District, hailed as the embodiment of "smart growth"...had only three more children living there in 2000 than in 1990, according to demographers.  What's "smart" about a city without children?

Do we [i.e., Seattle] want to be like Portland, childless and..."proper"?

Enough already! This factoid--that Portland is devoid of tykes--is simply false. It doesn't even pass the 5 minute Google test; that is, it takes less than five minutes of web searching to see that it doesn't hold water.  And yet, it's a theme I hear again and again in discussions of Portland and smart growth generally.

It's high time to roast this chestnut.

As it turns out, what's true for Portland's Pearl District -- that there aren't many children -- doesn't hold true for the rest of Portland.  Take a look at the Census Bureau's Portland "quick facts." As of the last Census count, 21.1 percent of the city's residents were children under the age of 18, compared with 24.7 for Oregon as a whole. 

So the city does have fewer children than the state as a whole, by 3.6 percentage points.  But take a look at the Seattle "quick facts."  Minors account for just 15.6 percent of the city's population.  In comparison, Portland is teeming with kids -- 40 percent more, measured per capita, than in Seattle.  And the gap between Seattle and the whole of Washington is 10 percentage points -- nearly 3 times wider than the gap between Portland and Oregon.

So it makes absolutely no sense -- none -- to ask whether Seattle wants to be "childless" like Portland.

Admittedly, Portland has fewer kids than many US cities.  But it's pretty much on par with Denver and Minneapolis, has a few more kids per capita than Pittsburgh, and far more than San Francisco (where under-18-year-olds are just 14.5 percent of the population).  In Vancouver, BC -- often held up as an exemplar of family-friendly urbanity -- children under 18 made up only 15.5 16.6 percent of the population in 2001. 

Diving into the Vancouver numbers a bit deeper, it seems that there's no major part of Vancouver -- not downtown, not the west side, not even the semi-suburban south end -- that has a kids-to-population ratio that's as high as in Portland.  And the kid-to-population gap between Vancouver and the whole of BC is wider than for Portland and the whole of Oregon.  Vancouver's denser neighborhoods have a reputation for having lots of kids, and in large part they do -- but only because they have lots of people, period.  As a share of the population, though, Portland has far more kids than "kid-friendly" Vancouver.

I'm sure this post won't put an end to the urban legend of Portland's childlessness (although it may perpetuate the impression that there aren't many kids in the Northwest's other major cities).  But I hope it helps.

On a deeper level, I'm puzzled by all the hand-wringing about childless cities.  As of the last census, families with children comprised less than one in three Northwest households.  And the number of childless households is growing for good reasons.  We're having kids later in life, and fewer of them -- largely because of better educational and job opportunities for women.  Plus we're living longer, so seniors are making up a far larger share of the population than they used to.  For the large and growing number of childless households, urban living has a strong appeal -- they're the ones who appear to be flocking to housing in dense urban centers.  So to the extent that the trends towards "childless cities" is real, it's largely driven by demographic changes that we'd be foolish to want to reverse.

What do the angst-ridden commentators lamenting the lack of children downtown want people to do? Have kids even if they'd prefer not to? Die before they get a chance to down-nest?  Move their families to urban condos in order to save some single-family detached houses for hipsters?  Help me out here, folks.

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April 04, 2006

Montana to Insurers: Cover The Pill

Late last week, Montana required that any insurance plan that covers prescription drugs generally may not exclude coverage for prescription contraceptives such as birth control pills. The Helena Independent Record reports.

 That’s big news because couples whose insurance covers contraceptives are more likely to choose the most effective forms (which tend to be expensive): pills, for example, rather than condoms alone. And better contraception means fewer unintended pregnancies and abortions. It also means that more children will be born wanted.

Among Cascadian states, California and Washington already require equal treatment for prescription contraceptives: California, by law; Washington, by ruling of the state Insurance Commissioner. In Montana, the action came in a binding legal opinion issued by the state’s Attorney General. Excluding contraceptives from prescription drug plans is sex discrimination, AG Mike McGrath concluded. The rule has the force of law unless it’s overturned by the legislature or a state court. The legislature is unlikely to do so: the state senate approved a bill to ensure equal coverage for contraceptives last fall, although the state house did not join them. It’s unlikely, therefore, that both houses would pass a law that reversed the AG’s ruling.

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March 17, 2006

Plan B at Walmart

Walmart today reversed course on Plan B. Starting Monday, it will begin offering Plan B in all its pharmacies nationwide, as the Associated Press reports.

That's great news, because Walmart controls a huge share of Cascadia's pharmacy market share.

Over the long term, this development may have a bigger impact on our place's future than anything else in the news today.

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March 16, 2006

Standing Up for Plan B

In Washington, the PI editorial board stands up for Plan B.

"The Washington State Board of Pharmacy is considering a policy to outline if and when pharmacists could refuse to fill prescriptions due to their personal moral, religious or ethical objections. Here's our suggestion: never."

In Washington, DC, Washington's US Senator Patty Murray does too.

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March 02, 2006

Red States, Blue States, and Family Planning

Yesterday brought a number of articles on a report from New York's Guttmacher Institute on how the US states rank on efforts to reduce unintended pregnancies. (Go to full report; and a state-by-state ranking.)

Interestingly, both red and blue states (including New York, California, South Carolina, Alabama, and Alaska) were winners at helping women avoid unplanned pregnancies. But the reason is not too surprising: These states have taken family planning seriously, with steps such as funding programs to improve access to family planning, contraception and emergency contraception. They also know it's an economic issue as well as a social one: The report finds that every dollar spent on family planning can save up to $3 in health care costs related to a pregnancy.

Unfortunately, other states have stagnated in their efforts. From the WA Post article:

From 1994 to 2001, many states cut funds for family planning, enacted laws restricting access to birth control and placed tight controls on sex education, said the institute.

Despite some gains, the United States still lags far behind most industrialized nations in reducing abortion and teenage pregnancy. In 2002, 21 in 1,000 American women age 15 to 44 had an abortion. Although that is the lowest abortion rate since 1974, the decline has stalled, prompting fears that individuals and policymakers have lost focus on the underlying problem of unintended pregnancies, said Guttmacher President Sharon L. Camp.

The rankings were based on factors such as ease of access to contraception, state funding for sex counseling and support from state legislatures.

In the Northwest, Washington ranked 11th, Oregon ranked 9th, Idaho ranked 26th, and Montana 32nd. Idaho and Montana are two of the states where pharmacy access to emergency contraception--aka Plan B--isn't offered yet because the passage of Plan B was stalled at the Federal Drug Administration headquarters in DC. (See this article for an update.)

In good news, as we reported last month, the teen birth rate in Cascadia is at an all-time low.

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February 24, 2006

Signs of the Echo Boom

Washington state just came out with new estimates of population increase in the state, breaking down the share of growth in recent years that resulted from migration (in-migrants minus out-migrants) vs. natural increase (births minus deaths).

Overall, the state saw a significant uptick in net migration in 2005.  From 2000 through 2004, the net inflow of new residents from outside the state had slowed quite a bit, compared with the late 1980s thorugh mid 1990s -- when in-migration was red-hot.  Now, after a cooling-off period, it seems that the state is attracting legions of new residents again.

WabirthsnatincreaseAlso interesting to note: after roughly a decade in which the total number of births remained fairly  stable, births are on the upswing again, reaching their highest level ever in 2005. (See the blue line on the right).  The period of relative stability in the number of births was, in a way, a fluke -- boomers were moving past their reproductive peak as the relatively small "baby bust" generation entered their prime childbearing years.  So even as pouplation grew, the number of births didn't.

Now, the "echo boom" generation -- the children of the boomers -- are entering their reproductive peak.  And we're seeing the fruits, so to speak, right now:  more babies born than ever.

At the same time, natural increase (births minus deaths -- the pink line in the chart) went up by a much smaller amount.  The number of deaths is rising along with the number of births, as boomers inch closer to retirement.

It'll be interesting to see if these two trends keep cancelling one another out.  Natural increase has been a surprisingly constant force in the state's population trends -- the slow-steady tortoise, compared with the on-again, off-again hare of migration.

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February 15, 2006

Nativity Scene

Perhaps everyone else knew this, but I certainly didn't: most residents of the northwest US were born outside the state where they now live.  Roughly 53 percent of folks who live in Idaho and Washington, and 55 percent in Oregon, are transplants, born either in another state or country.  (For the record, I'm a wanderer too, born and raised on the east coast.)

For the most part, in-migrants came from other parts of the US, rather than overseas.  As of 2000, only 1 in 20 residents of Idaho, 1 in 12 residents of Oregon, and 1 in 10 Washingtonians were foreign-born. The rest of us came from other parts of the US.  (Of course, there's some overlap here; some folks who were born in, say, Washington now live in Oregon. So there may be quite a few people who didn't move far -- but the Census site where we got these numbers couldn't tell us specifics.) 

British Columbia, on the other hand, has a substantial population of international in-migrants: 1 in 4 residents of the province were born in another country, mostly in Europe or Asia.

I have no larger point here -- other than a bit of surprise that, for a place that seems to have inspired genuine loyalty among its inhabitants, our roots may be a bit shallower than I'd thought.

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January 10, 2006

Shrink Rap

Demographers are projecting that population in some parts of the globe -- Russia, the Ukraine, Japan, much of Western Europe -- are set to decline over the next 50 years or so.  Of course, the talk of a shrinking population seems to send some people into a panic, which is why you occasionally see stories decrying the new "population crisis" -- not too many people, but too few.

The Economist has this to say about the doomsayers:

People love to worry—maybe it's a symptom of ageing populations—but the gloom surrounding population declines misses the main point. The new demographics that are causing populations to age and to shrink are something to celebrate. Humanity was once caught in the trap of high fertility and high mortality. Now it has escaped into the freedom of low fertility and low mortality. Women's control over the number of children they have is an unqualified good—as is the average person's enjoyment, in rich countries, of ten more years of life than they had in 1960. (Emphasis added.)

That seems just right to me.  And the article makes some other worthwhile points too -- including that economic output per capita is a far better measure of the health of an economy than total output.  Measured by total output, a place with a shrinking population could seem to be in economic decline, even if the average person is getting wealthier.  (Of course, even better than total output per capita would be a measure that looks at how the poor and middle class are faring.  Still, policymakers should keep in mind that per capita measures of economic health are more significant than total output.)

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January 05, 2006

Babies Not Having Babies

Some more good, or at least interesting, news for 2004:  teen birth rates in Cascadia hit an all-time low. There were just under 27 live births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 19, according to final data for the year.  That's probably not just the lowest rate in recent history, but the lowest since humans first inhabited this place.

Teenpreg19702004 (Just to be clear: we spend a lot of our time comparing trends in BC, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho -- the main political jurisdictions whose rivers flow through the temperate rainforests on the Pacific Northwest coast.  For short, we call the region "Cascadia."  End of public service announcement.)

Teen births throughout the region have fallen by about 57 percent since 1970.  But they've fallen unevenly, as the chart shows.  In the Northwest states, teen pregnancy rates are about half of what they were in 1970.  In British Columbia, however, teen pregnancies fell by an astonishing four-fifths over the same period.  Or, said differently -- teen birthrates in BC and the Northwest states used to be quite comparable.  Now, the teen birthrate is more than three times as high in the Northwest US as in BC.

As with many social and environmental trends, BC more and more looks like, well, it's in a different country than Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.  Gasoline consumption, sprawl, health, teen births -- on these measures and many others, BC substantially outperforms the Northwest states; and on many of them BC's lead just keeps getting bigger.  I'm not sure what this means; perhaps nothing. But it may also be a sign that the politics and cultures of these neighbors are gradually diverging.

Regardless, given the similarities in climate, language, and history between the two halves of Cascadia, the differences between BC and the US Northwest demonstrate--fairly convincingly it seems to me--that minor differences in policy and outlook can gradually add up to huge differences in outcomes.

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December 29, 2005

Make Room!

The good ship Cascadia has another 227,000 passengers.

The US Census Bureau has issued population estimates for the states, which allow us to give an updated Cascadian population tally. As of July 1, 2005, the region – counting British Columbia, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington – had 15.6 million people. (Adding western Montana, southeast Alaska, and northwestern California pushes that figure up by another million or so, but running the county-by-county figures takes more time than I’ve got at the moment.)

The (four main jurisdictions of the) region added 227,000 inhabitants over the preceding 12 months. That's about the number that live in greater Olympia, Washinton. And it's a 1.5 percent increase, the largest since 1997.


The resurgence stemmed from rising domestic migration into the region. Natural increase (births minus deaths) remained stable at around 70,000 per year, as did international migration at around 50,000 per year. (International migration is hard to tally reliably at present. As the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey comes online, we’ll be able to track it better.)

The extra 227,000 Cascadians, especially the adult migrants, bring new resource consumption, pollution, and traffic as they arrive. But just to be unpredictable today, let me point out that they also bring new talents, productivity, and resources with them.

One dimension of in-migration that’s little noted is the way that growing populations allow more-rapid transformation of metropolitan areas. Cities that don’t have growing populations do not have many opportunities to build complete, compact communities, filling in their urban form. And compact communities can actually reduce resource consumption among their residents. It’s conceivable, in fact, that adding population--if it goes into the right kinds of smart-growth neighborhoods--might lead to such large per-person reductions in resource consumption that the aggregate total remains unchanged or even diminishes.

So migration brings big challenges (about which there’s more here) but it also brings opportunities.

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