Alex Webb / Magnum Photos

How to Make the Five Boroughs Better for Parents and Children

Grace Rauh

June 26, 2024

Smart investments are critical to the future of New York.

Smart investments are critical to the future of New York.

To be a parent in New York City is simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating. And those of us who have chosen to stay in the city with children have made tradeoffs that are bewildering at best to people who don’t live in New York.

About a year ago, an old friend came to visit from Kentucky, where he lives in a spacious home with his wife and four children. He walked into our 850-square-foot Brooklyn apartment with one bathroom — a home I share with my husband, two daughters and our dog, and he was stunned.

“I am humbled by how you live,” he said. He spent the night on our couch. There is no guest bedroom.

The challenges of living in New York as a family are legendary, and they mount the less income you have: small and expensive apartments, exorbitant childcare costs, demanding work schedules, a complex public education system with far too many poor-performing schools, and a public transit system that often requires caregivers to haul heavy and unwieldy strollers — or heavy and unwieldy children — up and down stairs.

Simply crossing the street carries its own risks. And then there’s the noise, trash, pollution and sense of disorder that can crop up unexpectedly on any street corner or subway ride.

Over the last few decades, however, we have experienced an urban renaissance made possible by dramatic public safety improvements that led to a steep jump in population. Neighborhoods and parks that had been no-go zones for many New Yorkers became more appealing destinations for more families.

But as the last decade came to a close, that growth began to falter and we began to see declines in the number of families with children in the city. The most recent data are staggering: Families with young children are twice as likely to leave the city as New Yorkers without young kids, and we’ve seen a precipitous drop in public school enrollment.

To be clear, there are still many families who are here and want to stay. Despite all the challenges, New York is a treasure — a rich metropolis with much to offer. We have beautiful parks, free arts and culture, neighborhoods that feel like small towns with deep community ties, and a real sense of possibility and opportunity and wonder for children growing up here. Though oft-derided, our public school system is the nation’s largest for a reason: It serves thousands upon thousands of families no matter how well prepared they are when they show up, no matter what language they speak at home, no matter what disability their child may struggle with.

When I had my first child almost 13 years ago, I was wholly unprepared for the financial hit we were about to experience to pay for childcare. It was as if my husband and I decided to rent a second apartment in Manhattan just for fun.

But far too many children in New York aren’t experiencing anything close to an idyllic urban childhood. Two million New Yorkers are living in poverty, according to Robin Hood’s latest poverty tracker report, and more than 119,000 New York City students experienced homelessness during the last school year.

To truly make New York more family-friendly, we need to help lift more families out of poverty and give families more reasons to stay here.

The challenge before us is complex and requires new public investments. We need to move on multiple fronts by increasing access to childcare, prioritizing education, building more housing, expanding parks and open space, improving street safety and making public transit more accessible. None of these approaches alone will solve the problem — but together they can begin to ease some of the burdens so many families face.


To keep more families from fleeing, we need to make it easier for them to stay even before their children start going to school, by providing access to affordable and high-quality childcare.

When I had my first child almost 13 years ago, I was wholly unprepared for the financial hit we were about to experience to pay for childcare. It was as if my husband and I decided to rent a second apartment in Manhattan just for fun. That’s how much it cost. These days, infant care at a center can easily top $20,000 a year and in some parts of the city it’s north of $28,000. And that’s if you can get your child a spot. We only have one licensed childcare seat for every two children under the age of 5 in New York City.

Universal childcare must be our long-term goal, but there are more immediate policy changes we can enact to stabilize the system, like making it easier for families to enroll in care, streamlining regulatory and operational requirements for providers, investing in the city’s childcare workforce and creating more physical capacity for childcare.

Remarkably, there are actually some families eligible for subsidized childcare that don’t take advantage of it for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they may not realize it’s an option. A new communication tool, like a text-message platform that parents join after the birth of a child in New York City, would boost outreach efforts and provide a way for the city of New York to share critical information about subsidies, pre-K enrollment and health milestones.

The City should also streamline the bureaucratic hurdles that make it hard to open and operate a childcare center. We need more common-sense flexibility so that, to take just one example of unnecessary regulation, providers aren’t restricted to operating in expensive ground-floor real estate. Thinking creatively about how to find low-cost space for childcare centers is key. Amid declining school enrollment, there may be opportunities to repurpose vacant classrooms.

Many of these steps are low- to no-cost reforms that would have an immediate impact. But in the long run, the only way to radically change our childcare system is through substantial public funding for care.


New York City is home to some of the strongest, most sought-after public schools in the country, while others are struggling. The stark disparities mean that there are winners and losers among students and families. Though there’s more choice built into our system than many others, children from wealthier neighborhoods are often at a distinct advantage when it comes to accessing better-resourced and higher-performing schools.

In the wake of the COVID pandemic, when remote learning failed far too many young people, families are exiting the system. Between 2020 and 2023, the number of students in the public schools here fell by more than 104,000. The decline has stabilized more recently, but only thanks to the arrival of migrants in New York.

Fixing our public schools will require a herculean effort and tremendous political will. New York City is on track to spend $39,304 per student next year (among the largest investments on a per-student basis in the nation) and yet only about half of our students are proficient in math and English.

It shouldn’t require a Ph.D. to get your child through high school in New York City.

Policy leaders need to rethink and reexamine how the City is allocating funding for education in order to maximize our investments and prioritize the needs of students. The arms race in private tutoring to prepare students for the specialized high school admissions exam shows that families are desperate for more challenging academic offerings. Our schools need to provide more honors classes and accelerated academic programs to students, especially in middle school, where they have largely been eliminated.

And then there’s the challenge of navigating the system overall. When well-resourced parents are completely overwhelmed by the middle school and high school admissions processes (and in some cases hire expensive consultants to help), families without the social capital to “work the system” and those for whom English is a second language will struggle mightily to assess the best options and opportunities for their child. It shouldn’t require a Ph.D. to get your child through high school in New York City.


The cost of housing can stretch the wallet of nearly all New Yorkers, but for those with children looking for more space, it’s especially daunting. The bottom line is that we need to build more housing, prioritize affordable housing and introduce more housing models into our ecosystem to free up multibedroom apartments for families who desperately need them. Many of our city’s three- and four-bedroom homes are occupied by single adults sharing space with friends or roommates, leaving limited options for growing families.

Initiatives like City Hall’s “City of Yes for Housing Opportunity” are critical if we are going to make a dent in our housing and affordability crisis. Many families face a double financial hit when they have children: the cost of moving to a larger home with space for children and the added expense of childcare. This is a time when it’s common for New Yorkers to leave the city, even if they’d prefer to stay.

We must be creative with our streets and public squares so that we can establish more parklike destinations for families.

Open space and parks

Parks are New York’s great release valve, providing space for us to stretch and run and walk and breathe. For families, parks are positively essential. And while the vast majority of New Yorkers (nearly 85%) live within walking distance of a park, there are well over 1 million residents who do not.

Given the limited space available to create new parks, we must be creative with our streets and public squares so that we can establish more parklike destinations for families.

Initiatives like the City’s Open Streets program, where thoroughfares are open to pedestrians and closed to vehicles, are a real boost and should be more widely deployed. The same goes for block parties, which are highly effective at building community ties and are virtually free.

Cambridge, Mass., has made block parties a city priority. It offers cash grants to reduce party costs and provides free games and activities. Applications for permits only need to be made two weeks in advance — not two months, as New York City requires. Promoting block parties across the five boroughs is an easy way to strengthen neighborhoods and provide families and children with safe outdoor spaces to play and socialize.

Street safety

One of the most extraordinary benefits of living in New York is our ability to walk nearly everywhere — but our streets and intersections are far from safe, and stronger traffic calming measures and enforcement are needed. A big win for families is the recent passage of Sammy’s Law in Albany, which will allow the City to lower its speed limit to 20 mph on almost all streets, reducing the risk of death or injury in a vehicle crash.

More effective enforcement against aggressive driving is also essential, along with better protections for pedestrians so they don’t face the daily threat of collision from vehicles when crossing in a crosswalk. An effort to redesign intersections to promote safety is underway, but the goal is only to improve 2,000 intersections per year — an incremental improvement given that New York City has about 40,000 intersections in all.

Traffic fatalities have thankfully fallen in New York City over the last decade since the introduction of Vision Zero, but 2023 was the deadliest year for cyclists this century. Electric bikes and scooters have virtually taken over bike lanes, making biking a more dangerous undertaking for families. We need common-sense reforms to ensure cyclists of all ages can use our bike lanes without fear of getting clipped or colliding with a speeding scooter.

Public transportation

Transporting young children on the subway can feel like an Olympic sport, requiring feats of strength when an elevator is not an option. Parents have to lug strollers up and down stairs, often relying on fellow New Yorkers to lend a helping hand. (Neither is it a picnic to be pregnant here.)

Only about a quarter of subway stations in New York City are considered accessible — which means they don’t require straphangers to climb or descend stairs to get on the train. Installing more elevators across our subway system would make it vastly more family-friendly, but the timeline to make the upgrades is far too long.

The MTA has said it will have elevators and ramps at nearly all its stations — but not until 2055, and even that timeline may be in jeopardy given the recent uncertainty around congestion pricing. An elevator was recently installed at my local subway station, years after my children were done with strollers. I felt joy and awe riding it for the first time, knowing that it would provide so much relief for a whole new set of families.

I recognize that with a handful of exceptions, the ideas presented here all come with significant price tags and are in competition with other expensive priorities like climate resiliency. But making smart investments to support families is critical to the future of our city. In 2022 alone, New York City is estimated to have lost $23 billion in economic activity and $2.2 billion in tax revenues from parents leaving the workforce or downshifting careers to care for children. Wise investments in families would pay dividends many times over.