Are children worth the money?

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 25, 2010

When my wife and I decided to have a child, we didn’t check our wallets first. We put little consideration into whether we had enough money to raise a child.

Growing up, I regularly heard stories of how my parents barely scraped by in their small apartment, sacrificing the only heater for the baby’s room instead of their own.

In 1968, my parents struggled to pay for college and diapers. I guess I figured if they were able to do it back then, I would be able to do it now. After all, I was 20 years out of college and both my wife and I had steady jobs.

So when I heard how much money the federal government estimates it takes to raise a child, I felt a slight pain in my back pocket.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, by the age of 17, a child’s price tag approaches a quarter of a million dollars and is heading higher. A child born into a middle-income family in 2009 will cost an estimated $286,000 by 2026. Lower income families spend less; the cost of raising a child between 2008 and 2025 will be $206,000. For high-income families the price tag is estimated at $476,000.

Since the government issued its report last month, there has been an interesting conversation shaping up on the Internet and in a few national media outlets.

“Are kids worth the money?” American Public Media asked on their Web site in connection to an article featuring Marketplace Money’s personal finance editor Chris Farrell.

Responding to the government’s report, Farrell mentioned conservative economic commentator Ben Stein, who once lamented that children today are “too much cost, too little reward.”

His reference to Stein’s attitude raised my curiosity enough that I spent some time ferreting out Stein’s original Fortune Magazine article.

In the article, Stein essentially makes the argument that the value of child has changed greatly since the days when children assisted parents with chores on the farm, on the ranch or in the village.

“The kids did not require much — just food and shelter and occasional loving and cuffing about to keep them in line.”

In the modern society, the tables have been turned, Stein says. Child rearing is “part unpaid chauffeur, part torture,” he writes. Parents struggle like galley slaves to make sure their children attend the right school, while paying exorbitant sums of money for ballet, soccer, music and chess lessons.

“And after graduation day, what do you get for having the system holding you by the ankles and shaking all the money out of your pockets?” he bemoans.

In a free society, Stein points out that people choose to have more of something if the return exceeds the cost. Likewise people choose to have less of something if its value is less than its cost.

Stein wonders if the reason for the plummeting birthrate in America’s upper and middle class is because the value is so low relative to its cost.

It’s an interesting thought. But when I walk into my son’s bedroom every morning to lift him out of his crib, there is no doubt in my mind that Ben Stein has at least one half of the equation wrong.

Too much cost? Maybe.

Too little reward? Not a chance.

Ben Hillyer is the Web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.