Every year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture puts a price on America’s children. According to this year’s calculations, the cost for a middle-income, two-parent family to raise a kid born in 2013 (not including saving for college) is precisely $245,340. So, what do parents get for our money?
Over the years, researchers have explored that question from a number of angles. A 1997 paper published in Population and Development Review noted that, historically, people have fewer children as their societies shift from agricultural economies, in which children are seen as resources, to industrial ones, where they’re an economic burden. Yet fertility rates typically don’t drop below replacement level, something the paper’s authors say there’s no “coherent theoretical basis” to explain. “In short,” they write, “There’s no explanation for why Americans still want children.”
The authors try to rectify this situation by looking at survey data about which Americans want kids—or want more kids if they’re already parents—with three hypotheses in mind: people concerned about the economic cost of children are less likely to want to be parents; seeing kids as a drag on a parent’s career will reduce their appeal; and people who see children as “social resources” that can help them in their lives are more likely to want them. Ultimately, the study didn’t find much evidence for the first two ideas. The “social resources” hypothesis was by far the most supported. So, what does that mean? The questions the researchers used to determine people’s view of kids as social resources included six items: “Giving my parents grandchildren,” “Giving my child(ren) a brother or sister,” “Having someone to care for me when I am old,” “Having someone to love,” “Needing something to do,” and “Having at least one boy and one girl.” That’s a lot to pack into one explanation.
But another survey-based paper from 1978 could help break those items down a bit. It found that the most significant reasons parents cited for having kids fell into the category of “primary group ties and affection.” Specifically, 35 percent of moms and 24 percent of dads rated love and companionship of children highly, while 16 percent of mothers and 22 percent of fathers strongly valued having “a complete/closer family life.” Fifty-two percent of mothers and 48 percent of fathers also pointed to items categorized as reflecting “stimulation and fun.” The next most-chosen categories were “expansion of the self” and “adult status and social identity.”
There was some variation in the results. Non-parents were much less likely than parents to see kids as a source of stimulation and fun or adult status and social identity. Low-income parents were somewhat more likely to mention economic issues, while more unemployed mothers valued fun and stimulation. Jews and those not affiliated with a religion placed more emphasis on “immortality.” Overall, though, the same big rewards were high on parents’ lists across groups.
So, what’s the ROI on children? Studies show it’s love and fun.
Population and Development Review, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Jun., 1997), pp. 333-358
The Journal of Population, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Summer, 1978), pp. 91-131