Cost of children

by Rob Horning

23 October 2006


Economic determinism at work: My disinclination to start a family has always seemed to me a deeply personal decision based on my gut reactions to things like baby talk and steaming piles of human feces. But it may be that my reactions are colored by economic realities: In posts on the Washington Monthly‘s blog, to the costs of raising children and the fact that households of single people now outnumber those of marrieds.

The family used to be a refuge from risk. Today, it is the epicenter of risk. And, increasingly, families are a source of risk as well. Because it takes more work and more income to maintain a middle-class standard of living, financial shocks are more threatening for families. What happens when a woman leaves the workforce to have children? What happens when a child is chronically ill? What happens when a spouse loses his or her job? And what happens when families fall apart?
We are not used to thinking of children as an economic liability, but the facts are clear. According to 2005 calculations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, raising a child to age 18 will cost almost $237,000 for a middle-income family. And that leaves out the upward-spiraling college tuition that is now a required ticket for admission into the middle class. Fully one-quarter of “poverty spells” — periods in which family income drops below the federal poverty line — begin with the birth of a child.
Spouses, of course, do not equally share the investment of time and money that raising children entails. Women still mostly care for the child — and bear the greatest cost. Their careers are most likely to be disrupted by family events. If they work, their jobs are most likely to be low-paying and with poor benefits. And they are most disadvantaged when families fall apart.

In short, raising a kid is expensive and extremely risky and could result in your spending many sleepless nights wondering how to pay bills and avoid the dire poverty you’ve set a course for. Perhaps if we had a society that truly valued family, we’d have governmental protections like they have in France, where they also have a rising birth rate and are free from hyperbolic worry of demographic disaster.

Of course we are encouraged to embrace the ideology that families are made by love, not money (which even a cursory knowledge of the history of the family disproves), and that it’s callous to think of the expense of a child, to put a price tag on the miracle of life. People who prefer to treat themselves—with free time, hobbies, solid nights of sleep, financial security, the luxuries of dining out or taking in cultural events without the stress of penny-pinching or baby-sitter hunting—instead of make sacrifices for children are regarded suspiciously as selfish monsters (probably liberals and hence hedonistic sybarites) whose lives will ultimately lack meaning. Women are suspected of ignoring their “biological clock” and suppressing their natural maternal instinct, though as Brad Plumer explores here the maternal instinct is something of a recent invention. “In her new book, Laura Kipnis points to a related concept—the idea that mothers and infants “bond” at birth. According to Diane Eyer, the whole notion is actually something of a scientific fiction, first pushed in the 1970s, when a large number of women where entering the labor market for the first time and messing up cultural conceptions of a woman’s place in society. Many people still believe that mother-infant “bonding” exists—articles are still cropping up in the news about how painkillers and the like affect the process—but to a large extent it appears to be invented.” Plumer cites this passage from Kipnis’s book, The Female Thing:

With the industrial revolution, children’s economic value declined: they weren’t necessary additions to the household labor force, and once children started costing more to raise than they contributed economically to the household, there had to be some justification for having them. Ironically, it was only when children lost economic worth that they become the priceless little treasures we know them as today. On the emotional side, it also took a decline in infant-mortality rates for parents to start treating their offspring with much affection—when infant deaths were high (in England prior to 1800 they ran between 15 and 30 percent for a child’s first year), maternal attachment ran low. With smaller family size… the emotional value of each child increased; so did sentimentality about children and the deeply felt emotional need to acquire them.

As children become more expensive, the more acute becomes our need to feel that they are worth it emotionally. The amount we love children, then, may be correlated to how much hardship they give us, how gratuitous they are to our material well-being. To use a totally trivializing comparison, this is like when I blew my allowance money on a copy of the truly awful Frankie Goes to Hollywood double album Welcome to the Pleasure Dome because I swallowed the hype about it. (I learned some hard lessons about the British music press and the costs of juvenile Anglophilia, but that’s another story). I had to pretend I liked it harder and longer because I spent so much ($14 in mid 1980s teenage dollars) on it.

But if Hacker’s right, the ideology of treasuring children and yearning for them only goes so far; for bourgeois folk like me, it may stop when children are no longer merely a personal inconvenience but a threat to our accustomed station, when having a kid means surrendering our class prerogatives. In response to the threat children pose, we may begin to exaggerate the other nuisances they present to solidify our resolve.

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