NY Times Wrong: Tech Not Driving Out SF Kids

Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Randy Shaw
Beyond Chron

In our new world of fake news and alternative facts, a front page New York Times story wrongly blaming tech for San Francisco’s lack of children (“San Francisco Asks: Where Have All the Children Gone,” January 2) may not seem that disturbing. But the problem with the story is simple: the reporter compared 1970 and 2010 census figures to show a decline in San Francisco’s child age population instead of comparing 2010 to 2000. Why use a nearly 50 year old census figure instead of more recent data? Because San Francisco’s child population has been nowhere near as high since 1970 and using that baseline created an exaggerated high decline for 2010.

In other words, the reporter cherry picked fifty year old census data to support his claim that San Francisco is becoming “more one dimensional and less vibrant” due to tech driving away kids. Comparing the first census to fully cover tech (2000) to 2010 numbers only showed a 1% decline, undermining the “tech caused a reduction in kids” thesis central to the story.

According to the census, San Francisco had 22% children in 1970. That total, however, had already fallen to 17% by 1980.

San Francisco’s child population fell to 16% in 1990, 14% in 2000, and was 13% in 2010. So any decline associated with tech was from 14% to 13%, a statistically meaningless 1%.

The 5% decline in San Francisco kids from 1970 to 1980 is the biggest decline in city history. It even exceeds the reduction in kids from 1980 through today. If the Times wanted to find a connection between San Francisco’s declining children and changes to the city, it should be looking at 1970- 1980.

But wait! The Times already did!

On June 9, 1981 the NY Times published “Changing San Francisco is Foreseen As a Haven For Wealthy and Childless,” which also focused on the city’s declining number of kids. That story cited a number of factors for the reduction in families with kids including high housing costs. It also found that “estimates of the city’s homosexual population range from 10-20 percent of the total, and it is generally believed that homosexual households are a significant factor in the trend toward smaller households.”

San Francisco changed dramatically between 1970-1980. Its shift to non-child households had nothing to do with “tech.” It was instead connected to its becoming a national refuge for gay and lesbians under attack elsewhere, and by the larger shift in its economy from blue-collar to office, tourist, finance and real estate. Many cities saw an influx of single young professionals in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, and they took up housing units formerly occupied by families with kids.

I could make a strong argument that San Francisco, despite a decline in kids, became more vibrant after 1970. The late 1960’s had more children, but that is not usually looked back upon as a golden era for San Francisco (except for rock music and drugs).

What the Times story also omits is that San Francisco has never had a high percentage of kids. While the Times offers the unusually high 1970 figure of 22% as a norm, San Francisco only had 19% kids in 1940.

San Francisco has seen 6% decline in children over 70 years and a 1% decline since 2000. Yet the Times’ wrongly concludes from these numbers that tech is driving away San Francisco kids and that “the dearth of children is one more change that raises questions about its (San Francisco’s) character.”

The Problem is High Housing Costs, Not Lack of Kids

It’s not news that the tech boom along with other aspects of San Francisco’s surging economy has caused rising housing costs. It seems Times Reporter Thomas Fuller saw a new SF Planning Department report on family housing as a news hook for blaming tech not only for increasing housing costs but for, as one commentator put it, “driving families out of San Francisco.” And to make sure readers understood the full impact of tech’s wrongdoing, Fuller warned that this post-1970 decline in kids endangered San Francisco’s “character” and “vibrancy.”

But the statistics do not show tech has driven families out of San Francisco. Instead, there has been only show a 1% decline in San Francisco children from 2000 to 2010 and only a 4% decline since 1980. So the Times story is an inaccurate account of the changing demographics of today’s San Francisco. The claim that tech’s arrival has driven kids out of San Francisco is simply untrue.

I and most others share Fuller’s concern about the city’s future. But it’s not a decline in children that is putting San Francisco’s character and vibrancy at risk—it’s high housing costs driving out the working, middle and creative classes.

High housing costs were identified as the city’s core problem in the 1981 Times article; the problem has only gotten worse. I can only surmise that since the Times has repeatedly covered San Francisco’s high housing costs that the reporter needed a new angle to get on the front page.

A better choice for the Times front page would be about the housing crisis forcing out families in San Francisco—we just ran one yesterday about a 37-year Mission tenant, his spouse and their baby being subject to a bad faith OMI eviction.

That’s the type of news that’s fit to print—instead of the misleading news that we saw on Sunday.

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