NYC is the Best Place to Raise Kids
It's Cheaper, Safer and More Fun than the Rest of the Country -and no, you aren't reading this subhead wrong
Sitcoms and media images of New York City can give an impression of a city of single 20-somethings bustling along until they flee to the suburbs when they have kids.
But the reality is that parents with over 1.8 million kids under age 18 live in the five boroughs - and for good reason. New York is a fun and dynamic place to live - and contra a lot of media stereotypes, it’s cheaper to live here for families than most places in the country and it’s far safer for the kids. That’s why we’ve raised two children in NYC and can barely imagine doing it anywhere else.
It’s Cheaper to Live in NYC
You’ve got to be kidding me, I can almost hear people saying, but budget line by budget line, NYC ends up being cheaper to live in for most families .
Housing and Transportation Costs
Yes, if you want to live in the West Village, NYC is going to bankrupt you. However, for most families living in the boroughs or upper Manhattan (where I live), the cost of housing, while more expensive than in many places, is not unimaginably so.
And the big difference is that in NYC you don’t have to own a car, which massively reduces living expenses, particularly for lower-income families where keeping cars in service for two parents can be financially crushing. Dumping my car two decades ago was a massive relief and it’s amazing how a metro card for two parents - public schools cover our kids’ - makes transit barely a line item in our family budget.
Cheaper housing usually goes along with being farther away from jobs and other services, so it often increases transportation costs for families. Researchers have been studying the combined costs of housing and transportation for decades, in forms like the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s (CNT) Housing and Transportation (H+T) Affordability Index. In Houston, for example, households spend only 25% of household income on housing but nearly as much, 20%, on transportation, for a combined total of 45% of income on average. For NYC, households spend more on housing, 30%, but only 9% on average for transportation, for a total of 39% of income.
CNT argues that combined costs of more that 45% of families’ income should be considered unaffordable: Houston is just on the edge of that measure, while New York City is part of only 26% of communities in the nation considered affordable when you combine the costs of housing and transportation.
For parents, the costs of child care often rival housing and transportation costs, particularly when you have two or more younger kids. Families spend on average at least $10,000 per child per year across the country on child care and often twice that for higher-quality care.
New York costs more than that average for private child care, but unlike most other areas, New York is rapidly replacing private child care with publicly-funded preschool, first guaranteeing universal access for four-year-olds in 2014 - my son was in the first cohort - and expanding universal access to all three-year-olds in 2023. This compares to the rest of the country where pre-K programs serve just one-third of four-year-olds and just 17 percent of three-year-olds. And notably, NYC’s preschool program provides full-day programs for 3K, PreK, and kindergarten- a critical feature for working parents. This compares to almost half of children across the country being in half-day kindergarten and far fewer being in full-day, government-funded PreK. So NYC saves families up to three years in additional child care costs, which with two kids works out to child care savings of between $60K to $120K per family compared to many other locations.
New York City also has comprehensive after-school programs in more than 1000 locations around the City, further helping parents who are working full-time. The City continues to expand enrollment in its “Summer Rising” program, saving parents the costs of summer camp for the 110,000 children enrolled in the program.
NYC has some of the most comprehensive health care coverage provided by any state. Only 5.2% of New Yorkers lack health insurance coverage, one of the lowest uninsured rates in the nation. One policy study found the median NY household had $960 in annual out-of-pocket health care expenses, including premiums, copays, and other expenses not paid by insurance. That is the lowest in the country (except for Alaska) and just a bit more than half of the national median out-of-pocket costs of $1768.
NYC in particular has a special program at city clinics and hospitals for those without insurance that limits the costs of doctor’s visits for those making less than 200% of the poverty line to just $20 and emergency room visits to $75 for adults, and prescriptions to no more than $6. (All of these costs are free for those below the poverty line).
It’s hard to quantify how much fun New York City is for kids - and how much of it is free. You don’t need a big yard when great public parks are a few blocks away - and amazing spaces like Central Park, Van Cortland or Brooklyn’s Prospect Park are a few subway stops away. Recreation centers and outdoor pools are in neighborhoods around the city - my own is a short walk and it is the Olympic-size pool profiled in In the Heights
The American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are both free for residents - and both have ongoing educational programs for kids. The multiple zoos and aquariums have free visiting days and, for a pretty reasonable yearly membership, unlimited visits to charm your kids. Free or extremely cheap children’s entertainment is provided by the City government and a host of non-profits year-round - and is provided literally daily as the summer months hit. And the best part is that a large chunk of the free entertainment provided is by Broadway actors or professional musicians picking up a bit of extra change entertaining kids- so the quality of all that free entertainment is sometimes astonishingly great.
State and local taxes are higher on average in New York, but not dramatically so. A household with a median income of $69K will pay roughly $1600 more per year than in the average state. But here’s the kicker, because the tax system is so progressive, the bottom 20% of households pay the same average tax rate as the rest of the country – and a far lower tax rate than places like Texas, where the poorest 20% face a punishing 13% tax rate.
And those taxes make life so much cheaper by dramatically lowering the costs of transportation, health care, child care, and entertainment.
New York City is Safer for Kids
In thinking about the safety of New York City, the reality is that mortality rates are far higher per capita outside central cities in the suburbs or in rural areas. (From the Centers for Disease Control).
Part of that may be older populations outside cities suffering greater rates of age-related deaths due to illness, but a significant part is also the far higher traffic-related deaths in the suburbs and rural areas. Motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death for children of every age from 2 to 14 years old in the U.S. And the Centers for Disease Control has found that automobile fatality rates are far higher outside urban areas because people drive more and at faster speeds.
New York City in particular has orders of magnitude lower traffic deaths than the rest of the country, as the graph below reflects. Residents of Manhattan have one-tenth the traffic deaths of residents of Mississippi, for example.
Ah, but what about all those murders in NYC we hear about in the news? While homicides did tick upwards during the pandemic- as they did across the country- it was from a base that had been falling sharply for years. Below is the graph for changes in the murder rate over the last decade in New York State versus the national rate- which is far higher.
New York City’s murder rate has largely paralleled changes in the state - and its homicide rate is only slightly higher than the state as a whole. And NYC’s homicide rate is not just lower than most other cities’ but lower than the rate in the country and most states. You’d never know it from the media coverage, but the murder rate in NYC is lower than Florida’s and far lower than the homicide rates in Arizona or Georgia, or Mississippi, for example.
With these numbers on traffic and homicide rates, what’s clear is that a parent moving to the suburbs, especially if they leave New York state itself, is taking the single act most endangering their children’s lives.
A Word on NYC Public Schools
The last reason parents argue for leaving New York is to seek better public schools. If you are very wealthy, you can buy your way into a suburb with strong public schools - but for most people, the schools in the suburbs are no better and often worse. It’s worth starting with the fact that New York City has six of the top 50 public high schools in the country, according to US News and World Report. That reflects the many strong public schools throughout the City.
Yes, some schools are crappy and need serious public investment to get better, but there are wonderful teachers throughout the system. (My wife is one of them, teaching first grade in an elementary school in Harlem). While students from poor families face challenges in any school system, they actually on average achieve slightly higher test scores on state standardized tests in NYC public schools than similarly disadvantaged students in the rest of New York State.
And one thing NYC has is the City University of New York (CUNY), which year after year educates tens of thousands of graduates of the City’s public schools. Most top universities’ reputations are built on largely accepting only students already from the educational elite, so their students were destined to succeed however strong or poor the quality of the education provided. But CUNY educates far more children from the poorest 20% of the population and helps propel them into the middle class.
In fact, as this New York Times article details, the CUNY system lifts more students to the middle class than do all eight Ivy League campuses- plus Duke, M.I.T., Stanford and Chicago- combined, despite those schools educating far more students overall.
The New York City public schools aren’t perfect but when you see it as a system including CUNY, it is one of the most amazing engines of successful education and economic opportunity in the nation- one reason I am proud to be a teacher in CUNY’s Lehman and John Jay College branches.
Why Kids Love New York
As we ease out of the pandemic, every day we are reminded of all the great things returning from hibernation, from street festivals to outdoor theater. And the pandemic has even made the City more wonderful in one striking way, the massive expansion of street life as outdoor dining becomes a fixture in the City.
And as our kids get older, they have a superpower few suburban kids have: they can transport themselves to all the free, fun activities around the City since they don’t need a driver’s license to get there or a parent to chauffeur them. And because the city is so safe, I have no worries in them doing so.
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Fascinating statistics and a great argument for a conclusion that seems absurd at first!