How much have you got to spend?

Kids cost more for parents who have more.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released its annual report on the cost of raising children. Using data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey, they estimate the costs for one year, then extrapolate out to 17 years with inflation (thus not including college and beyond). The methods are complicated, involving the costs of an extra room, economies of scale, food needs, and so on. It’s not just an exercise — the numbers are meant to be used as a guide for child support, foster care and education program budgets.

But the costs depend on how much money the parents have. That’s natural in a descriptive sense, but should it also apply prescriptively? In other words, are the needs of children really determined by the wealth of the adults who care for them, so their wellbeing is relative? In further words, who is children’s wellbeing for?

The report breaks families into married versus single, and then breaks the married-couple families into three pre-tax income groups. Here’s how the 17-year projections cost out.

I sorted the categories by something like their elasticity, that is, the ratio of rich-parent to poor-parent spending. So, food spending varies the least, so I put it on the bottom. Childcare/education spending varies the most — which is mostly because higher-income families have wives who work and earn more, and they spend more on childcare — so I put it on the top. Miscellaneous includes your video games, entertainment and so on.

Consider housing: rich parents spend more than twice what poor parents spend to add a room per kid (and in the model kids all get their own room). This is morally OK in a world where parents have a right to produce children of their own social status. But where does that leave the rights of children?

5 thoughts on “How much have you got to spend?

  1. I can’t understand why housing is a cost. I’ve got four kids and a really big house (6 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms etc ). But the house is an investment as well and so the value of the house goes up more than if I had a small house. When the kids leave and we downsize we get a nice big lump sum.


  2. Good point. But they still treat the annual spending on the house as an expense. You could think of education the same way, or sports camp if your kid became a star soccer player. These things are hard to cost out for a population, but they could have all kinds of effects on your decision-making, state of mind, cultural attitudes, etc. (Though from the point of view of the analysis, if you sell that house after they are 17, it doesn’t count anyway.)


  3. To me the variance in cost makes sense, even if it is ultimately “unfair” to the children born into poorer families. Stick with me for three examples and Ill answer the question about the rights of children at the end.

    For housing, the richer live in larger, nicer houses in areas with better home values. The poorer may often be in apartments or find other arrangements more suited to their income like home sharing. Though to be truthful, I find it hard to believe that all kids get their own rooms. Seriously? My kids have to share. I’m in the poorest group, by the way, below the halfway mark. I live in a manufactured home and count myself lucky.

    As for food, I shop at Wal-Mart, Food 4 Less and off-brand discount stores. My cousin’s family (in the richest group) shops at Whole Foods, etc. and can afford organic and other more costly meats and produce in addition to fancier meals and eating out. One interesting thing to note is that often poorer families are trapped paying more for lower-quality foods, especially if they must shop at corner markets due to lack of transportation to and from a chain grocery mart.

    As for miscellaneous, which for the top bracket is more than my family income for one year, I can also see the difference. Another commenter mentioned sports camp. That would be awesome, but in my case, the kid gets a soccer ball and finds friends at the park. I’d love to sign her up for a class, but its just not possible. The internet is our biggest entertainment expense and is allowed because it can serve many purposes: education, games, movies, news, communication with others, work, etc. We’ll get an xbox when my cousins kids get the latest and greatest.

    So what are the rights of children and how do variances such as these affect them? I believe they have the right to shelter, food, education and love. We as a society should intervene when children from any economic background are denied one or more. But who’s to say sharing a room is detrimental vs. having a room of one’s own as a child? Or vice versa? If a child has access to basic nutritional food and healthcare, their natural rights are upheld, though maybe the details differ between economic classes.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that as long as the basics are being met, differences seem unfair but are not violations of children’s rights. If we as a society come to see these differences as problematic, then we have another set of problems to be solved for everyone, not just children.


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