Assessing the net value of children

The U.S. birth rate is falling. One explanation: a diminishing return on investment.

By Ben Stein, contributor

(Fortune Magazine) -- What is the value of a child in modern Western industrial society? More specifically, what is the value of a middle-class or upper-middle-class or upper-class child in America? And does this have anything to do with the fact that the birth rate among American women has been falling for decades and that the age of first childbirth among educated women is far higher than among less-well-educated women?

Start with economics. People in a free society will choose to have more of something if its return exceeds its cost. On the other hand, people in a free society will choose to have less of a good or service if its value is less than its cost.

Now, what is a modern child? Obviously, not a good or service, but something more and also something less. Long ago, as we all know, humans had children because they liked having sex and because children had some value as assistant hunters and gatherers and keepers of the hearth.

Then, as society became more organized, families chose to have children because the parents (we assume) still liked having sex and the resulting children were helpful on the farm or the ranch or in the village smithy. The kids did not require much -- just food and shelter and occasional loving and cuffing about to keep them in line.

Now we can have sex without having children. That is a major factor in life, but by itself it does not explain why people do not necessarily want to have kids.

Maybe the reason is largely because raising modern children is such a major pain in the neck. For one thing, thanks to a variety of factors, often parents have to struggle like galley slaves to get their offspring into private schools and pay for them.

The private school parent also has to pony up for every kind of lesson -- ballet, horse, and music lessons, math tutoring, and chess club. The parent also has to drive the little ones to all of these events as well as to the "play dates" that lurk like unanesthetized colonoscopies in modern life. Then there is the most horrible event a healthy upper-middle-class American can have: social engagements with the parents of Junior's classmates.

In other words, we are talking about child rearing as part unpaid chauffeur, part torture.

Then there is college and a real course in horrors getting the darling in somewhere that won't embarrass you in front of your pals at the club. That's before paying for the school, which is a stunning slap in the face. Total college costs at a "prestige" school can easily touch $70,000 a year, real money for most people.

And after graduation day, what do you get for having the system holding you by your ankles and shaking all the money out of your pockets? You might have a son with a law degree who cannot get a job, a daughter with a film-school degree who works as a masseuse, or a musician who keeps you up all night with his drums.

You are very likely to have one who cannot spell "gratitude" and has a sense of entitlement that would make Marie Antoinette blush. How many of each kind have you observed with your own eyes? I might add that by pure luck, my wife and I do have a dutiful, helpful son and daughter-in-law. How this happened I am not quite sure.

But my son is an aberration, as far as I can tell. Look around you. The costs and benefits of having children in affluent America are wildly off kilter. Too much cost, too little reward. Often the cost-benefit analysis of children prints out "Get a German shorthaired pointer instead."

Many people are doing that, and the birth rate is collapsing. But if we stop having enough children, because their value is so low relative to their cost, the society grinds down. It's happening right now. The native-born upper middle class barely replace themselves in America, if they do at all. In a way we are committing suicide as a class, possibly in part because of the burdens of child rearing in modern life.

What is the net present value of a child in modern America? Often, it's difficult to find much, and thereby hangs a question mark over our future as a nation, at least as we have known it.

Ben Stein is an actor, lawyer, writer, and economist who also appears in commercials as a spokesman for various companies.  To top of page

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