The most recent U.S. government estimate issued at the end of August shows that parents are projected to spend $245,340 over 18 years to raise a child born in 2013. Not surprisingly, it reports that parents spend the most housing their children and then paying for childcare and education. The third-largest expenditure is food. The government calculates this estimate each year to determine financial allowances given to foster families, for example, or to establish guidelines for public assistance. The report itself does not attempt to inform people of how much money they need to have before having another child. The amount of nearly a quarter million dollars, though, has been reported to the general public without much explanation of its use or couched in advice on how to save money, feeding the widely accepted idea that most families cannot afford to have more children.
Before I became a mother, no one ever approached me in public to ask about my ability to pay for things, and random people certainly never singled me out for direct questions concerning educational expenditures. Now, though, when I turn the corner with four little people in tow, people feel compelled to demand an explanation. This subject has left me speechless on many occasions, but I have learned to expect it when comparing prices on butter in the grocery store, which, for some reason, makes strangers approach me and ask the non-dairy question, “How will you pay for education and weddings with four girls?”
The unsatisfying answer is that we won’t pay for it, or at least, not the same way others do. On one level, I sympathize with people who feel they lack the resources to have more children. My family of six requires flexibility to stretch dollars, but the government report actually shows that families with three or more children spend 22 percent less per child than families with two children because of shared bedrooms, toys, clothes, and bulk food purchases. I can attest to the benefits of shared bedrooms because we save on housing, heating, and cooling by having all four children creatively tucked away in a single room. They treat this fact as a grand adventure, complete with complex communication systems from one bunk to another and elaborate geopolitical boundaries delineating personal space. With the same venturesome spirit, we provide them with high-quality education sans tuition by supplementing their schooling with as many books as we can borrow from the public library, visits to museums on discounted evenings, and carefully planned field trips. But these financial gymnastics, though sometimes frustrating, never made us question our willingness to welcome children three and four into the family.
Low Birth Rates Hurt Everyone
When families decide they can only afford one or two children, they inadvertently run the risk of jeopardizing economic growth by low birth rates. In fact, last year the United States reached its all-time low in birth rate, which has been below replacement rate since 2007 because of recession and family economics. For a country to maintain economic stability, it needs to sustain the birth rate of 2.1, and a Centers for Disease Control report in 2013 indicated that the average number of births per woman in the United States was 1.88. At such a low birth rate, the population begins to age and runs the risk of having too few people in the workforce to support economic growth and to fund programs such as Social Security. This year, the news is slightly more promising, but only by a slim margin. Families, of course, may have two or fewer children for a number of reasons, but when they refrain from having children because they cannot afford them, it in turn undermines the overall economy and each family’s ability to rear children.
Society should stop asking the question, “Can you afford to have children?” (I would personally appreciate it if society would stop asking me that in the chilliest part of the grocery store.) If money were indeed the only factor, then we would see much larger families in the highest income bracket, which we do not. Economically speaking, society cannot afford not to have children. Our country needs economic stability for the good of all, and so a sustained birth rate of more than two children on average per household is good for the nation.
Parenting Children Is a Vocation
Suggesting people have children solely to support the national economy, though, falls far short of an ideal recommendation because it couches the birth of children in terms of cost-benefit analysis. When the birth of children becomes a matter of mere finance, we fail both ethically and vocationally to realize that the societal benefit of well-raised children is far greater than the money they cost and the effort they require.
Parents often do not themselves see a return on their investment but pour their resources into bettering others. That’s one reason why parenthood is a called vocation, a divine service to one’s neighbor, and we should re-frame the entire discussion of parenthood in such terms. Instead of viewing a child as something that a couple or an individual chooses, the idea of vocation speaks of what has been given to an individual to do. This flips the way families speak of children, from what they can afford to what has been given.
The vocation of parent has been most clearly given to married, heterosexual couples. I do not mean that as a political statement but to state the obvious fact that the sexual relationship in a heterosexual marriage leads to the conception and birth of children, barring medical complications. Most traditional wedding services admonish the couple to consider marriage the conduit for sexual intimacy, companionship, and procreating children. It is not how most couples approach marriage, given that one of the first factors most women consider when getting married is what contraception they will use. The fact that children are naturally part of heterosexual marriage has been all but lost in all the talk of economics, political correctness, and medical advances that allow eggs to be fertilized in petri dishes.
Vocation allows couples to determine their priorities according to the people in their lives, namely one another and the children they are given, rather than in terms of money. This does not eliminate difficult conversations about the family budget. It can actually make finances tighter to accept children as the natural result of marriage and to welcome them as gifts to be cherished. But families in which married parents have committed themselves to creating a nurturing environment for their children understand a fundamental principle of family vocation. A family that properly embraces vocation gives children first life and then vast riches of knowledge and beauty, even if it is unable to bestow wealth.
The late Yale professor Jaroslav Pelikan wrote in his memoir, “I like to say that I was born into a family that was rich in everything except money—good food in abundance, music, books, languages, and above all tradition and faith.” What a beautiful description of his family’s priorities and the immense heritage it gave to him, preparing him for decades of study and, yes, economic productivity. Such human capital within families can reach far beyond the confines of economic capital. The question is whether or not we believe that enough to reset our thinking about children. We simply cannot afford to see them as commodities any longer.