A Society Out of Balance

Last night, just as the Beloved Spouse and I were settling into sleep, one of our daughters called seeking reinforcements. Her husband was traveling for work and one of their two children was vomiting aggressively and had come down with the kind of red-hot fever that only little ones can bear – and they miserably. We jumped out of bed, got back into our clothes and headed to their apartment. By this morning all was well again, but the long night had reminded me just how hard parenting can be.

And, apart from being exhausting, child-rearing is so punishingly expensive that it’s a wonder that anybody – especially those who are middle class – decides to do it. Let’s consider the context in which these decisions are made:

According to data from the US Department of Agriculture, for families with household incomes between $59k and $102k, raising a child to age 17 costs about $235k (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cost_of_raising_a_child). For families with incomes above $102k, the cost is pegged at $390k per child, but this post will focus mainly on the dilemmas facing middle class would-be parents.

For them, even ignoring for the moment the costs of enabling one’s progeny to get the college degree that most parents now see as a requirement if their child is to have decent job prospects, a single baby can be expected to absorb nearly 20% of the total pre-tax household income of roughly $1,275k that they will have over a 17-year child-rearing period (with costs and income held constant) – and since the cost of raising the child is not tax deductible it represents considerably more than that percentage of their after-tax income.

And there will certainly be unquantifiable financial costs to child-rearing. The best example of these is the parent who sets aside or back-seats a promising career to provide maximal love and support to her or his child. We can’t really ignore the cost of college, either, since very few loving parents will plan for little Johnny or Susie to be cut adrift at age 18.

The annual costs of college are somewhere between roughly $25k for in-state, public schools and $50k for private institutions https://www.valuepenguin.com/student-loans/average-cost-of-college. Elite schools typically cost much more, but again, for purposes of this post I am focusing on the middle lane, as presumably experienced by most hard-working, tax-paying Americans.

A significant proportion of these college costs may be borrowed (or laid off on the young adult) by way of loans but, here again, such costs are not tax deductible. Student loan debt totaled something like $1.5 trillion in 2019 https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackfriedman/2019/02/25/student-loan-debt-statistics-2019/#6cae068133fb.  

In other words, between what prospective parents can expect to pay directly for their child’s college education, and what they borrow for that purpose, a typical middle class family can reasonably anticipate that any savings that they will have managed to accumulate in spite of the enormous financial cost of raising their child to age 17 will be wiped out in late middle age. And that’s with just one child.

All of which ignores the emotional and physical costs of raising a child. Last night’s adventure was just a small reminder to me of the dirty, profoundly physical and often-sleepless labor that parents of young children routinely and thanklessly perform. Further, parents and paid caregivers today must contend with second guessing by armies of well-meaning doctors, teachers and other parents that had much lesser involvement in daily life patterns fifty years ago. (My siblings and I got ourselves to school beginning with kindergarten, and were free to roam between the end of the school day and dinnertime; nowadays parents like mine would be in big trouble – society virtually demands helicopter parenting). Finally, prospective parents also have to expect to have very anxious years when their child or children are teenagers. They know that, too.   

Is it any wonder that US birthrates have fallen from about 3.6 children per woman in 1960 to 1.8 children today – well below the replacement rate of roughly 2.2 (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-44151642)? No, it is not. The greater wonder is that so many Americans are still brave and loving enough to have children at all.

Every time I see a young parent pushing a baby carriage, I smile inside – there is a person who is carrying the world forward in the face of terrible costs, almost always as a result of choices made knowingly by the mothers.

***

The overwhelming and undeniable effect of these facts is to create gigantic disincentives to child-rearing among middle class people. To many young couples, a potential child looks like financial suicide. The equation differs marginally at the bottom of the income spectrum – where many of the costs are borne by the state – i.e., other (or, y’know, actual) taxpayers – and at the top of the income spectrum – where the financial costs, while greater in actual terms are less of an issue in relative terms. But for most, the costs are ruinous.

The facts about the financial and emotional costs of raising a child that I’ve laid out above are now applicable throughout most of what we describe as the developed world. So we shouldn’t be surprised at the well-below-replacement-level birthrates throughout Western Europe, North America and Japan.

To me, a society that isn’t reproducing at replacement rates is a society in decline. If those trends continue, it will eventually be overcome by cultures that reproduce themselves and then some. I’m not saying that immigrants can’t – or don’t – adopt our culture in whole or in part; they often do. Even so, we can’t expect our system and values to prevail in a world in which people who were born into them are an ever-diminishing subset of a self-consciously multi-cultural nation, and other countries wax while we wane.

In short, I think that if one of our goals is to sustain and build on the culture that has made possible the kinds of lives we’re leading today, by making parenthood prohibitively expensive, we’re doing it wrong. We are out of balance.

(I know, I know, the environmentalist movement sees lower birthrates as a good thing. Not so respectfully, I disagree, both because I am confident that man can continue to show Malthusians for the fools they are and have always been, and because I believe that if western culture is overwhelmed by those who have very different values, mankind will have lost its greatest flower).

A good first step to reversing the recent disincentives to childbirth in this and other western nations would be to take the cost of college out of the equation – not by making it “free”, as per Bernie and Elizabeth, but by changing our training-and-credentialization processes to skip the whole four-years-of-post-adolescent-progressive-indoctrination-camp that college has become. There have to be better ways for employers to sort prospective employees by IQ and accomplishment than to rely on the rankings of their colleges and worthless transcripts.

We can also begin to reconsider the shape of our entitlement programs, which overwhelmingly favor the elderly at the expense of the young. Simple math and changing demographics will force us to do this anyway, but the truth is that the current programs are deeply unfair to the younger generation, and as such should be reexamined on moral grounds.

Finally, there are non-financial things we can do, like reconsidering the social pressures that are now placed on young women to do it all – work and motherhood – perfectly. Outside-the-home work and motherhood are both vitally important and often infinitely demanding, and nobody can do either one perfectly, let alone both.

The decision to have a child will always be physically, emotionally and financially daunting. For the sake of a happier future, we should reconsider the ways in which in recent decades we have made it more so.

M.H. Johnston

2 comments to A Society Out of Balance

  • Eric  says:

    Thanks, I feel you have focused in on a critical issue. You have some thoughts, will our political and social systems respond in meaningful fashion?

  • Anonymous  says:

    JFG is obsessively carrying around the Mickey water bottle you got for him, telling everyone it’s Grandpa’s Special Juice. You and mom saved the day!

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