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Seattle Times news librarian Gene Balk crunches the numbers

December 28, 2014 at 8:25 PM

End of the nuclear family? Not in Seattle

A Seattle nuclear family of the 1950s (Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives, Item No: 31160)

Could the traditional American family be making a comeback in — of all places — Seattle?

Recent census data reveal an unlikely trend: The good old nuclear family, declining across the United States, is on the rise here.

Today, 70 percent of Seattle’s roughly 100,000 kids under 18 live with two married parents — a jump of 6 points from 2000. Among the 50 largest U.S. cities, Seattle now has the highest percentage of kids in married-couple households.

To get to No. 1, Seattle leapfrogged some famously conservative and religious cities. We surged past Salt Lake City and evangelical-mecca Colorado Springs, and even overtook Mesa, Ariz., recently dubbed America’s most conservative city.

Surprised? It gets stranger still.

Among the 50 cities, Seattle is one of just three where nuclear families increased their share of total households (Washington, D.C. and Atlanta being the others). Married couples living with their own kids now represent 14 percent of Seattle households, up from 12.5 percent in 2000.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Nationally, the trend is moving the other way. Nuclear families have fallen from 24 percent of U.S. households down to 19 percent today.

Liberal, accepting Seattle might seem like the ideal place to raise a kid in a less traditional family structure, but few of us do. Seattle has a very low percentage of children in single-parent households. And perhaps more surprising, we rank just 45th out of 50 for kids living with two unmarried parents.

So what’s driving the nuclear-family trend here — has Seattle turned back the clock to the 1950s?

No, probably not. But Seattle has changed in other ways.

As you’ve probably noticed, we’ve become a city teeming with well-paid professionals. Research shows that family structures are strongly tied to economic and class standing. Higher-income, well-educated couples are more likely to marry, and to stay married. And poverty rates are much higher for households with a single parent, or two unmarried parents.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

So in an increasingly affluent and educated Seattle, it’s not completely surprising that nuclear families are on the rise. And single parents, who are typically poorer, may be leaving the city as the cost of living here escalates.

Another change: In 2012, with marriage rights extended to gay couples in Washington, a more contemporary version of the nuclear family was created. Unfortunately, the data do not indicate how many of the married couples with kids in Seattle are gay couples. To be fair, it’s probably a modest number — in 2010, before legalization, census data show just 711 same-sex couples raising children in the city. Still, legal gay marriage must be considered a contributing factor to the rise of the married-parent household in Seattle.

So rest easy, Seattle. The nuclear family may be bouncing back here — but that doesn’t mean we’ve become an improbable bastion for modern-day Ozzies and Harriets.

Related: Married … with children: An upclose view of Seattle’s ‘weird’ distinction

Comments | More in Demographics | Topics: children, families


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