Beyond the scary Christmas list: the full parenting price tag
The parenting price tag has soared to about $220,000 per child. If you think the kids' Christmas list is hefty, there's no end in sight to the add-ons Americans can think of in the cultivation of kids.
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There's also been a proliferation of branded, status-symbol sportswear for tweens and teens. That's especially hard for children in mixed-income neighborhoods whose parents feel tremendous pressure for their kids to fit in socially, says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and author of several books on the history of the American family, including "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap." "Some parents I've talked to express this sense that since they can't give their kids the other opportunities, the least they can do is get them the latest fashion in shoes," she says. "It may seem irrational to people who can afford to save up for the bigger, more educational experiences, but the pain these parents feel about their inability to compete is palpable, and they end up feeling they need to spend more than they ordinarily would on shoes and things like that because they can't afford the others."Skip to next paragraph
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Housing has always been the biggest chunk of child-rearing costs, at a steady 31 percent. Even though the size of the average American family has shrunk from 2.2 children per married couple in 1955 to 1.93 in 2009, the size of the average family's house has grown. This trend accelerated after baby boomers started having kids, mothers entered the workforce, and families made a beeline for the suburbs. These days the norm for the middle class on up is that each child has a bedroom of his or her own, and that adds substantially to the cost of housing, says Mr. Cook.
In choosing a house, parents are also buying schools, whose quality can vary greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood. Many parents buy an expensive house not for the extra bedrooms but for the school system, says Ms. Coontz.
Although health-care costs are a relatively small percentage of expenditures on children, they have doubled since 1960, largely because of insurers requiring parents to pay a larger portion of their doctor's bills. Also, the actual cost of health care has gone up in real dollars. And, explains Mark Lino, the USDA economist who oversaw the research on family expenditures, parents are simply taking their kids to doctors more often. What is considered standard care now – consulting allergy specialists or getting an MRI for a head injury – was not standard care back in the 1960s.
A stealth expense hard to even calcULate in dollar terms is the time parents spend with kids. Because parents today are more actively engaged with their kids than parents in 1960, this time – variously called "quality time" or "face time" – is considered more valuable."
Child care used to be largely supervisory, a background activity by Mom, who was busy making dinner or cleaning the house. "Families spent more time in the same household back then but [they] weren't actively engaged with each other. Now they are," says economist Nancy Folbre, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts and author of "Valuing Children: Rethinking the Economics of the Family." In fact, supervisory time is considered of so low value that it's often not even counted in time surveys, she says.
Ms. Folbre calculated a very lowball dollar value of all time parents spend with their children – not differentiating between engaged time and supervisory time – using a minimum-wage replacement for parents. She found that for children living in a two-parent, middle-income household, the annual cost of parental time ranged from $12,353 to $14,338, depending on the age of a child.
"This is what the time would cost you, regardless of the reason you do it, whether it's love or obligation," she says. Her research shows time costs are about 60 percent of the total cost per year of raising a child, and that is just the replacement cost, not the opportunity cost, which is the income a parent gives up by choosing to stay home with a child.
Valerie Ramey, a professor of economics who co-wrote this fall's Brookings Institution report, "The Rug Rat Race," says the average time spent with children declined gradually from the 1960s to the late 1980s, as more women entered the workforce. But in the 1990s, "it really took off," she says. "The Rug Rat Race" argues that the increase in time correlates with increased competition for college admissions in this country.