The Parent Trap

By Samuelson, Robert J. | Newsweek, August 16, 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Parent Trap


Samuelson, Robert J., Newsweek


Byline: Robert J. Samuelson

How our budget policies hurt families.

Among the government's most interesting reports is one that estimates what parents spend on their children. Not surprisingly, the costs are steep. For a middle-class, husband-and-wife family (average pretax income in 2009: $76,250), spending per child is about $12,000 a year. Assuming modest annual inflation (2.8 percent), the report estimates that the family's spending on a child born in 2009 would total $286,050 by age 17. A two-child family would cost about $600,000. All these estimates may be understated, because they don't include college costs.

These dry statistics ought to inform the deficit debate, because a budget is not just a catalog of programs and taxes. It reflects a society's priorities and values. Our society does not--despite rhetoric to the contrary--put much value on raising children. Present budget policies punish parents, who are taxed heavily to support the elderly. Meanwhile, tax breaks for children are modest. If deficit reduction aggravates these biases, more Americans may choose not to have children or to have fewer children. Down that path lies economic decline.

Societies that cannot replace their populations discourage investment and innovation. They have stagnant or shrinking markets for goods and services. With older populations, they resist change. To stabilize its population--discounting immigration--women must have an average of two children. That's a fertility rate of 2.0. Many countries with struggling economies are well below that. Japan's fertility rate is 1.2. Italy's is 1.3, as is Spain's. These countries are having about one child for every two adults.

The U.S. fertility rate isn't yet close to these dismal levels. In 2007 it was at the replacement rate of 2.1, reports the National Center for Health Statistics. Hispanics in the U.S. were at 3.0, and other groups clustered near replacement: 1.9 for non-Hispanic whites; 2.1 for non-Hispanic blacks; and 2.0 for Asian-Americans. (Not all the news is good. About 40 percent of births are to unmarried mothers; many children are entering poor or unstable homes.)

Though having a child is a deeply personal decision, it's shaped by culture, religion, economics, and government policy. "No one has a good answer" as to why fertility varies among countries, says sociologist Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University.

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