Is Having Children Too Expensive? (Wrong Question!)
Religion & Liberty Online

Is Having Children Too Expensive? (Wrong Question!)

The cost of raising kids in the United States has reportedly gone up, averaging $245,340 per child according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which factors in costs for housing, food, clothing, healthcare, education, toys, and more.

From the Associated Press:

A child born in 2013 will cost a middle-income American family an average of $245,340 until he or she reaches the age of 18, with families living in the Northeast taking on a greater burden, according to a report out Monday. And that doesn’t include college — or expenses if a child lives at home after age 17.

In response to these estimates, much of the reporting has aimed to paint an even grimmer picture for prospective parents, emphasizing other factors such as the likely trajectory of declining wages and rising costs in areas like healthcare and education.

Taken together, it’s enough to make your average spoiled youngster run in the opposite direction. And indeed, many actively are. As Jonathan Last details extensively in his book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster, birthrates in the Western world are in a free fall, with more and more adults opting for fewer and fewer kids, if any at all, and making such decisions later and later in life.

For those of us who shudder at the prospect of a world with fewer children, and who increasingly encounter negative attitudes about child-bearing and -rearing amongst our peers, many of whom are in their child-bearing “primes,” one wonders how we might respond with a compelling financial case for having children amid such supposedly grim prospects.

But while it may be tempting to respond by nit-picking over the inflated consumeristic expectations of modern American parents, or by elevating innovative “life hacks” on how to coupon-cut your way to retaining that expensive Starbucks habit, we’d do well to recognize that at the heart of the West’s demographic crisis is the question itself — complete with its narrow consumeristic disposition toward cost and convenience as the primary metrics for human hope and destiny.

For Christians in particular, no matter what the dollar numbers of the day, the choice to have children is one driven by something deeper, wider, and higher than ourselves. Financial wisdom and frugality are important, but God didn’t tell Hannah, Manoah, or Mary to plug their ears, shut up their hearts, and budget their way to babies. At what point do we waive our “right to choose,” and let God choose for us?

This is where we ought to begin, with financial analysis and every other thought process funneled and interpreted accordingly. With that as my proposed foundation, I offer the following reflections to prospective parents: whether you tremble at the USDA’s price tag or dismiss its validity altogether.

1. Having and raising kids involves lots of pain and sacrifice, and that’s a good thing. Parenting involves hard work and immense dedication, economic and otherwise, and there’s no getting around it. Want to serve, sacrifice, and contribute to something awesome in real,  tangible, transformative, and transcendent ways? Pray earnestly and selflessly about whether you’re called to marry and have kids, and if you hear “yes” from on high, find the right spouse, bear children, and prepare your spirit, soul, body, and pocketbook for a life of liberating constraints.

2. Children are a net gain. That’s not to downplay or ignore the element of extreme sacrifice. When you wake up drowsily at 3 a.m. to help your screaming child for the 7th night in a row, the last thing on your mind is some sophisticated cost-benefit analysis about how “this all pays off in the long run.” But surely there are both immediate and long-term gains for all parties involved. People are producers, innovators, lovers, and taxpayers, and we were created to be in family and relationship and community. From a parent’s perspective, whatever you may think about the (likely) potential for dips in “happiness,” “comfort,” “economic stability,” yearly vacations to Paris, or any other superficial pseudo-pleasures of the Entitled Age, where there is hard and meaningful work, there is fulfillment, joy, purpose, and all-around human flourishing. As most parents eventually understand, the reward of parenting is a mysterious, paradoxical, perplexing, and beautiful thing that will never be trumped by some petty financial estimate by the USDA.

3. Sticker shock is sticker shock. But speaking of petty quantification, the numbers and estimates in these studies are surely inflated by over-the-top Western privilege and priority, even when taken through a wholly materialistic lens. Yet even still: How much does that actually matter? Even if you, as a parent, were modest and frugal to the extreme, sticker shock is still sticker shock. My wife quit her job to raise our three kids, and plans to be home full-time for some time. What should we do as a start? Multiply her lost salary times 18 or so, and factor in how many raises she might’ve earned in the years in between? See #1 above. The economic price is high no matter how you calculate it. Embrace the risk and sacrifice and find the reward.

4. What would God have you do? Going back to my initial point, and first and foremost above all else: With our newfound choice in all things family- and sex-related, our decision-making process must be rooted in obedience to God, which includes a heightened sense of obligation to spouse and community, and a far healthier view of sacrifice, happiness, and meaning than we as a culture currently possess. Russia tries to give away fancy prize packages to counter its population decline, and such measures continue to fail because they ignore a fundamental ingredient of a society with flourishing families: submission to priorities more powerful and compelling than free refrigerators and materialistic gimmicks.

Again, financial considerations are important, and they ought to remain an active part of our discernment and decision-making process. Likewise, God does not call everyone to have kids, nor to have them as soon or as young as possible. Even for those who embrace the calling, many face severe and painful hurdles in finding a good spouse or bearing children itself.

But when I ask young, married, prosperous millennials why they’re not having kids, more often than not, they point to illusions of comfort, their own personal plans and designs for the future (“wise” though they may be), and inflated notions of economic impossibility.

We are not in the demographic or cultural position of Russia, but the rising generation of young people in the U.S. is increasingly questioning or distorting the value and purpose of child-bearing and child-rearing. We’d do well to locate the proper source of whole-life flourishing, and do so nice and quick.

As Jonathan Last concludes at the end of his book:

There are many perfectly good reasons to have a baby. (Curiosity, vanity, and naiveté all come to mind.) But at the end of the day, there’s only one good reason to go through the trouble a second time: Because you believe, in some sense, that God wants you to.

Do we actually believe that?

Are we even asking the question?

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Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.