Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Money and Children

The New York Times is running an article about the reaction of Chinese people to the official end of the Two Child Policy. Which is mainly, "no way I'm having three children, I can't possibly afford it."

Their complaints – the expense, the lack of child care, discrimination against mothers, health insurance issues – sound just like those of Americans, who are about three times as rich as Chinese.

It baffles me that the public discourse over childbearing is dominated by talk about money and childcare, when those can't possibly be the cause of declining fertility. Nineteenth-century Americans were staggeringly poor by our standards, but they had twice as many children. Plus, richer Americans don't have more children than poor Americans, if anything the opposite. So far as I can tell, there is no meaningful relationship between parental income and the number of children people choose to have.

The biggest effect on childbearing in America is not income but religion: devout Christians and orthodox Jews have more babies than nonbelievers at every income level. News stories about the "need" for more childcare never mention this.

Since I am raising five children myself, I have some good evidence that this is possible on a middle class income. Over the years I have also met other couples with 3 to 6 children, and they don't seem very different from couples with 1 or 2 children. The mothers have careers. Nobody is starving or neglected. 

We don't have more children because we choose not to. Because raising a large family requires an investment of time and emotional energy that many people prefer to use in other ways. Because some people want to give a huge amount of attention to each child in a way that is not really possible when you have five.

I think that's all ok. If freedom means anything it should mean being able to choose the kind of family you want.

The other factor that is driving down fertility is late marriage. At the height of the baby boom in the 1950s the median age at first marriage was 22 for men and just over 20 for women. Now it is 28 for women and 30 for men. When women spend half of their childbearing years single, they are going to have fewer babies. And I have never, ever seen this discussed in one of those articles arguing that women aren't having babies because they lack "affordable childcare options." 

We live differently than we used to, with different priorities. This is a huge, complex change in human society, with hundreds of causes from feminism to cable television. 

I think it is just silly to boil this down to "people aren't having children because they can't afford it."


G. Verloren said...


I think it is just silly to boil this down to "people aren't having children because they can't afford it."

And yet with so many people scoffing at the idea of being able to afford more children, both in America and in China, surely it's just as silly to discount that?

You compare to nineteenth century Americans, but don't account for the fundamental changes in our society that make it impossible for a "wealthier" modern day American to survive in the same ways a nineteenth century one did.

Most Americans and Chinese were farmers as little as three generations ago, and certainly that was true throughout the 1800s. The overwhelming majority of people obtained their own food for their own consumption directly through their own labor. Even if you weren't a landowner yourself, you still grew your own food, and simply gave up some of your produce as rent.

Ditto for shelter - unless you were an urban dweller, you built your own home using what was locally available, and there were no banks, no inspections, no regulations, no restrictions on how and where you might build, no waiting on permits, no waiting on politicians, no waiting on contractors, it was all in your own hands - if you wanted something, you just started working on it and got it done.

Farmers work brutally hard, but they also tend to work seasonally. Planting and harvest time are extremely intensive, but the summer is mostly a lot of waiting around for things to grow, and that gives you time to collect resources, create tools, construct buildings, etc; while the winter gives a lot of time indoor crafting. But modern Americans and Chinese don't have entire seasons worth of time in which their primary labor tasks cannot be performed, and they can dedicate their time and effort to other endeavors. They go to work every week, doing the same thing all year, and they barely get a couple weeks off for vacation and sickness.

Modern people are wealthier, but they have less direct control over their lives, and they must pay for other people to do things that their ancestors would have previously done for themselves - and the exchange rate of hours worked to value returned is often poor.

A farmer who worked through the summer building an extension to their home got the direct return of the progress they made on the project. But a modern day worker who works their formalized job through the summer does not get the same return - they must wait for someone else to come perform inspections, then they have to wait for red tape and bureaucracy to get cleared, then they have to wait for the builders to actually get to work, they have to wait for various delays to get resolved (while the construction workers are off working on someone else's home instead). And by the end of the summer, they may have gotten some progress made, or they may have gotten nowhere, and most of that was left up to things outside their own control, and the entire time they still had to work their normal job and still had to pay their normal living expenses, and they still have to pay the all the builders and bureaucrats their full fees and wages, even if they drag their feet.

G. Verloren said...


Similar issues crop up in regards to having children. Nineteenth century individuals just... had children. They didn't have to register them with the government, they didn't have to sign them up for compulsory schooling, they didn't have to plan out their entire pregnancy and birthing with doctors and hospitals, they didn't have to figure out how they were going to afford the insanely high prices of American childbirth, etc.

Obviously there were major tradeoffs to that - there simply WERE no doctors and hospitals, and infant and childbirth mortality rates were monstrously high, and all the rest. But that was all taken into account by society. People were prepared for that reality, because there was no other option.

Similarly, having children itself had no other realistic option. You either committed yourself to celibacy (which few of our entire species are ever well equipped to do) or you accepted that children were going to happen, and that some of them were going to die along the way, and the cost of things never really came into the equation, because it didn't matter one whit.

And even if one was concerned with the cost of having a child in the past, it seems pretty clear that such costs have actually gone up substantially, because the baseline expectations for what a child ought to be provided with have gone up, and the means of procuring those things in the modern day all revolve around paying money to other people to do things you lack the time, knowledge, or authority to do yourself.

It's a lot cheaper to feed your children on home grown cabbage and corn; it's a lot cheaper to house them in a drafty log cabin in the woods; it's a lot cheaper to have them work the fields alongside you as soon as they are old enough to contribute; it's a lot cheaper to have 6 of your 10 farm hands be your own sons who will you don't have to "pay" as much because of their familial obligations to you; it's a lot cheaper to live life never expecting to have to spend money on schooling, or medicine, etc.

Yes, you are materially poorer in aggregate. But you are living inherently more frugally, and that is what society expects and calibrates for. It doesn't surprise anyone in the nineteenth century that family sizes are so large, because it also doesn't surprise them that 46% of children will die before the age of five, and that those who survive will be working in the fields not long after, doing work we'd never tolerate our modern children to perform, enjoying life expectancies we'd never tolerate them to have.

Our modern wealth also comes with modern expectations of how that wealth must be spent. So when people say they can't afford the added costs of raising another child, you can't compare that to the added costs a nineteenth century person faced. The baseline "cost of living" is simply higher. Yes, we get more OUT of that cost of living. But we also have less granularity in our decision making, because we can't "make room in our budgets" for making up for it elsewhere - such as taking one of your older children out of school to have them work the fields instead, etc.

G. Verloren said...


"In U.S. dollars, it costs $2,300 on average for a vaginal delivery or planned C-section in the U.K., or $3,400 for a more complicated procedure. By contrast, it costs $30,000 for the former and $50,000 for the latter in the U.S."


The median wage in America in 2019 was $19.33 per hour, which works out to around $40,000 a year. When just childbirth alone can cost you an entire year's wages, something is fundamentally very, very wrong with your system, and people are quite right to point out that they can't afford to have more children.

The same measure in Britain in 2020 works out to almost $45,000 a year - meaning that childbirth there only constitutes about a single month's wages.

If you discount people who say they can't afford children, you simply aren't paying attention to the economic realities many Americans face, which their counterparts in other modern, affluent countries are not subject to.

karlG said...

These costs that you cite are what the hospitals charge -- not what their patients pay. Roughly 90% of US births are covered by insurance of some kind. In these cases, the out-of-pocket cost to the patient averages between 5-6k.

G. Verloren said...


Roughly 90% of births are covered by insurance, sure. But that measure inherently doesn't take into account the people who LACK insurance.

Do you suppose that someone WITHOUT insurance might be hesitant to have a child, given the fact that doing so will almost guaranteed put them in massive debt? That they might, in fact, report not being able to AFFORD a child?

You can't point to data about the people who CAN afford to have children as some sort of evidence against the argument that many other people feel they CANNOT afford children.

Also, remember - British people have insurance too! That's what the NHS is! And they still pay half as much at most, and get much better care for their money to boot. US women are three times as likely to die in childbirth compared to British ones, for a complex set of reasons which ultimately mostly revolves around race and poverty.

G. Verloren said...


Oh, and of course, this is all still just dealing with the single issue of childbirth costs. It doesn't take into account the many other costs related to having a child, which in most cases are similarly much higher for Americans, and which compound upon each other in a long chain of causality.

And of course, none of that has much relevance on the comparison to the nineteenth century cost of having a child, and how much higher the costs are today, because we have higher minimum standards of acceptable expense on a child.

John said...

If insurance were the issue, then they would be having lots of babies in Britain and Japan, and they are not.

G. Verloren said...


Okay, but are the British and the Japanese reporting cost of having a child as a reason for not having more children?

Also, even if they are, something like insurance can definitely be an influencing factor without being the entirety of the issue, and such a factor can be more or less present in some countries than in others.

David said...

I don't feel too qualified to judge the role of financial issues. But I will say that my first thought is that an argument like that seems designed to forestall hostile judgments on the part of the audience (even if they are only imagined projections of the person's own guilt feelings).

I think a lot of people have a complex inner dialogue going on between themselves and their own inner scolds.

Denys said...

You have apparently touched a nerve. Bravo for doing so.

pootrsox said...

Another factor differentiating 19th and 21st century families:
Child care and parent support systems.

Extended families were the norm in much of America in the 19th century and I suspect in the rest of the developed world as well. Now families are atomized and isolated.

I have just spent 3 weeks with my daughter and her husband. I'm returning to VA tomorrow. I arrived the day she went into the hospital to be induced. She wound up having a C section and remaining in the hospital for 8 days while my grandson incubated in the NICU. They sent him home at 4.5 lbs because he was otherwise healthy. So all three came home together :) (I was official cat-care-person for that week.)

I am leaving. Her hubby is due back at work next Monday. (He had 4 weeks parenting leave!) She's supposed to have 12 weeks parenting leave but her employer uses an outside insurance company to pay her salary for that-- and that outside company has already denied her payment (evidently they don't believe she had a baby!)

So she will be without pay for some weeks-- *and without health insurance as well!*

(And she works for a major insurance company at a prestigious sort of job that earns her a most comfortable salary, one that's far greater than I earned as a classroom teacher with several advanced degrees.)

So she will have no help after this week. She will have no health insurance. And once she goes back to work, she will be scrambling to find child care. Which will eat up a good bit of her income as well.

Between her difficult end-of-pregnancy including high blood pressure and incipient pre-eclampsia (which that outside insurance company doesn't believe warranted her doctor ordering her not to work) and the difficulty of finding support, she's decided not to have a second child, even though they have a perfectly genetically sound fertilized egg in the fertility bank.

Honestly, I'm re-evaluating my move to VA 13 years ago; I may feel impelled to move back to CT to provide some of the necessary support. No-- I will not do full-time child care!! I'm far too old and I really don't like babies and toddlers :) Though my grandbaby is remarkable :)

Karl Breslaw said...

In addition to G Verloren's points. I once asked my mother who is an early American historian why in the old days people had many children. He first answer was if you have many children it increases the odds of one of them surviving you and taking care of you when you are old.