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Costly kids

Scrutinizing the root of anxiety over American child-rearing

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Our two babies were cheap.

We qualified for Medicaid (my husband was between jobs both times) but didn’t apply for it. We were able to work with both obstetricians on a cash basis, to deliver safely without extreme measures, and to get by with a shortest-possible hospital stay—even arriving just after midnight with our son, thus saving the charge for a whole day. Both babies weighed in at almost 9 pounds, nursed well, and developed no serious health problems throughout infancy and early childhood. We budgeted our household expenses so we could get by on one income and, for many years, one car.

We began homeschooling in the primary grades, and the money spent on curriculum we saved on school clothes. As the kids got older, we allowed one extra-curricular activity for each, like dance or art lessons. After graduation our daughter attended College of the Ozarks tuition-free. Our son qualified for scholarships but decided against college and eventually started his own business instead. After some false starts and missteps they are successful adults: married with children and financially stable. How much did it cost to raise them? I would say, practically nothing.

That’s not what the U.S. government would say. A graphic published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2017 puts the average cost to raise one child at $233,610, figuring in food, clothing, housing, healthcare, childcare, and education (with 7 percent left for miscellaneous). That’s lower in rural areas, but $193,020 to bring up a country boy or girl still seems high. What’s the reality? When an Atlantic article titled “Why Parents Struggle So Much in the World’s Richest Country” caught my eye, I was curious what the author had to say.

Stephanie H. Murray is currently raising two children in the United Kingdom, where she can afford a part-time freelance writing career because of universal healthcare, cash stipends for parents, and subsidized early education and childcare (including full-time preschool at age 4). She believes raising children in the United States would be an emotional and physical strain as well as financial, and she’s probably right—for two parents working full time in the urban Northeast, making payments on $500,000 homes, with private medical insurance, private schools, and an array of enrichment activities intended to clear a path to the Ivies for their two kids.

Murray cites two other concerns that make parenting in the United States a fearful prospect: gun violence and “the all-consuming nature of American child-­rearing”—i.e., the peer pressure of helicopter parents determined to raise a star scholar, athlete, movie director, or investment banker. This pressure, like high-dollar rents, may be more intense in urban areas, but all good parents want their children to “succeed,” however they define success.

Costs are going up, children get sick, and it’s increasingly difficult for a young family to get into adequate housing. Even car-seat mandates can make more than two children unaffordable, because a third child doesn’t just mean an extra seat—it means a bigger car. As far back as 1991, a distraught mother told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s kind of scary. It’s as if someone has sold you a $200,000 item with weekly payments for the next 17 years.”

How many would-be parents are looking at the cost-­benefit analysis and opting for Caribbean vacations instead?

We all have individual choices to make and priorities to set. And since raising future citizens is worth some government investment, federal and state governments could encourage parents with practical help, such as ­stipends, tax credits, or educational savings funds. But the choice to have a baby is personal, and there’s the deep-seated cause of much anxiety: When children are a personal decision rather than a gift of God, raising them often becomes a project to justify that decision. Estimates about the cost of raising children began after Roe v. Wade—is that a coincidence? When did we start talking about what they cost instead of what they’re worth?

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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