High cost of child rearing -- $85,000 each, and going up

Children may be priceless, but they are expensive. That fact is being driven home to more families in the United States as they make decisions about whether to have children, and how many, in an environment of high inflation.

The cost of having and rearing a child, including four years at a public college, has risen 33 percent in the past three years, according to a new report by economist Thomas J. Espenshade. (A senior research associate at the Urban Institute, he did the study for the Population Reference Bureau, Inc., in Washington.) That increase is slightly less than the 36 percent jump in consumer prices since 1977, but slightly more than the rise in disposable income for US families over that period.

Mr. Espenshade figures the cost of raising a child today is $85,000 in direct , out-of- pocket expenses, including housing, food, transportation, clothing, and education. The cost of having a baby, contained in the total, averages $2 485 for the hospital stay, medical care, nursery supplies, and maternity clothing.

A development that has helped many couples cope with the cost of having a baby is the growing number of employers providing insurance with maternity coverage. About 68 percent of US employees with medical insurance had maternity coverage of some form last year, compared with 62 percent in 1973, the Health Insurance Institute reports.

Surveys by social scientists indicate generally that most Americans are unaware of the total cost of raising children and do not base the decision on whether to have children on economic considerations. But some experts on families say the cost is a growing factor in many couples' decisions about parenthood, particularly whether to have more than one child.

"Most people don't have the slightest idea what it costs to raise a child," Espenshade asserts. But he feels awareness of those expenses is growing because of inflation, which he points out has been rising faster than income, and the fact that with more women working the economic impact of having children is potentially greater. If either parent stays home, there is a loss of income in addition to the higher expenses associated with raising a child.

Espenshade estimates that American mothers, on average, lose between $32,479 and $66 329 in income raising a child to age 14. This "opportunity cost" results from working fewer hours and varies depending on the woman's level of education and, thus, earning power.

These costs are relevant to a growing number of families in the US since the proportion of adult women in the labor force has risen from 34 percent in 1950 to 51 percent in 1979.

Dr. Lois Hoffman, a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan, has conducted a national survey probing the factors that go into decisions about having children. She concludes: "Economics plays a role in determining how many children people want, but not much of a role in the decision of whether to have any children at all."

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