The high cost of not having children

This is a guest post by Huston, who is a high school and college English teacher, a convert, and the father of six.

Five years ago, my wife’s grandfather had a major stroke. A physically active man throughout his adulthood, he saw most of his strength evaporate overnight. In the immediate aftermath of the stroke, he needed constant care. Was his life ruined?

Not at all. He and his wife had had eight children. Each of those eight had had several children. By the time of his stroke, most of the grandchildren themselves were adults who were starting families. Between the descendants and their spouses, there was an army of dozens who were ready and able to serve.

The grandchildren utilized social media and coordinated around-the-clock care for him for weeks. Then we helped move him and his wife out of the home they could no longer care for themselves in. Today, they live with a son and daughter-in-law who are themselves empty nesters with decades of independence ahead of them.

Financial burden to society: zero.

On the other hand, I’ve known of several situations where sick and/or aging people had little to no family and spent their declining days in the care of public institutions. They resented the sterility of their environment, and much of the cost ended up falling to the taxpayers, after their own resources quickly disappeared. As our country grows older, having had fewer children, this miserable situation will become far more common.

Previous generations understood that having children was part of an implied social contract; an acknowledgement that we had each been the beneficiaries of a family that provided a great deal of infrastructure for us, and that raising children to take our place was part of our obligation to the future success of society. Among the simplest aspects of that provision for maintaining and improving things in the future is the responsibility to care for the aging members of a family when the time comes.

When people stop having children, they’re reneging on their part of the contract. They’re saying, “I’ve profited from living in this advanced civilization, but I don’t intend to help promote its growth and security in the future in the most fundamental way required by nature.” In the parlance of our liberal friends, this philosophy is unsustainable.

My wife’s grandfather was able to be cared for in optimal comfort, among loved ones, because he’d spent time and money in the raising of a large family. That expense of resources—energy and wealth—was an investment that reaped the creation not just of interest, but of new human capital: the most valuable asset of all, and one that’s becoming scarcer.

This last summer saw yet another scare story in the media about the cost of having children. Such anti-natal bigotry spawns things like a popular condom ad, where the product touts the virtue of saving you money by preventing you from having children.

Besides the many errors of the “children are too expensive to have these days” stories (the biggest expense they note is day care, which is clearly optional), none of them take into account a future which is so inevitable that it’s hardly invisible: if we’re not spending our money on children today, we’ll be spending it on other things later.

$240,000 to raise a child to 18? What about an average cost of $80,000 per year for nursing home care?
Actually, that nursing care is just a start. The overall health care costs of voluntary sterility will manifest in a variety of ways.

I work in education, and it’s no secret that when counselors meet with students, the advice children are given about the biggest field for job growth in the future is in health care. Between Obamacare and our aging, dependent population, it’s no wonder why.

In Japan–the Western nation furthest along the path of demographic extinction, and thus an eerie look into our own near future–people are turning to robots for care and companionship for the elderly.

In our own backyard, as people balk at the costs of having children, this money is still spent anyway, but on pets.

After all, does anybody think that this money we’re not spending on children in America is just going into the bank?

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

27 thoughts on “The high cost of not having children

  1. This is a problem Western Europe has been dealing with for decades. Right now the United States has about the requisite 2.1 children to maintain population, plus positive net migration. Hopefully that will go up rather than down.

    At the same time, this fall I will turn 41 and my wife will turn 37. After nine years of marriage we still have no children – and my wife will probably have major surgeries on both ankles in the next two years. We’ll keep trying, of course. As it is it can be difficult at times to go to church and find couples our age with four or five (or rarely, more) children, with the oldest entering Young Men and/or Young Women. (What does bother me is how many are choosing to quit after four or five, when they have far greater resources than we do.)

    What I’m saying is, please don’t point fingers at us, or anyone else who doesn’t happen to have children as of yet.

  2. John Taber, I don’t think the purpose of the post is to “point fingers” at anybody. I know several LDS couples who simply haven’t been able to have children because of infertility and don’t have the money for adoption. Anybody judging them is an idiot. On the other hand, I have a LOT of non-LDS friends who consciously decided not to have children because…too expensive…gets in the way of careers…too much work, etc. As the national birthrate declines, this has become much more common. This will have effects.

  3. I agree with you that the declining national birthrate is a problem. On my mission in Italy, the typical non-LDS couple (married or “shacking up”) had 0-2 children, with two being very rare – their birth/woman is around 1.2. (LDS families there tended to have 2-4. I did know of one family that had three, joined the Church, and had four more.) Italy’s population is projected to decline in the coming decades, and like I said, that’s typical for Western Europe. While I’m not going to point fingers at anyone who happens to be single either, I do have family members in their 30s (or 40s) who aren’t interested in marriage and/or children and it does bother me.

    One thing to keep in mind, though, is something I’ve observed from serving thirteen of the last fifteen years as a clerk: my generation (roughly those born in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s) tends to marry later than the generation before. That doesn’t mean they won’t have children but the clock may be ticking and they might not have as many. (This is _not_ the case with most of the couples my age in my ward and stake that I described before.) They also tend to buy houses later, and that makes it frustrating for me as a clerk. Between the two, it means that less-actives who don’t necessarily check in with their respective wards are harder to pin down.

  4. “(What does bother me is how many are choosing to quit after four or five, when they have far greater resources than we do.)”

    That’s a really hard judgment to make, since you cannot possibly be privy to all the details of finances, physical and mental health status of both parents but especially the mother, marriage relations, children’s personalities, job security, and other factors that go into the decision to stop at four or five. (Or at two or three, or seven or eight.)

    Even if people seem open about their decision, they can’t possibly be sharing all of that with you.

  5. This is an example of a truth in the aggregate, but which people take offense to in the particular. Why can’t we talk about trends in society that are, indeed, problematic without people who are clearly exceptions taking personal offense?

    Great post, by the way — I completely agree. Here’s a great talk by Elder Oaks on the subject:

    Here’s a relevant quote from it:

    Knowledge of the great plan of happiness also gives Latter-day Saints a distinctive attitude toward the bearing and nurturing of children. In some times and places, children have been regarded as no more than laborers in a family economic enterprise or as insurers of support for their parents. Though repelled by these repressions, some persons in our day have no compunctions against similar attitudes that subordinate the welfare of a spirit child of God to the comfort or convenience of parents. The Savior taught that we should not lay up treasures on earth but should lay up treasures in heaven (see Matt. 6:19–21). In light of the ultimate purpose of the great plan of happiness, I believe that the ultimate treasures on earth and in heaven are our children and our posterity.

    President Kimball said, “It is an act of extreme selfishness for a married couple to refuse to have children when they are able to do so” (Ensign, May 1979, p. 6). When married couples postpone childbearing until after they have satisfied their material goals, the mere passage of time assures that they seriously reduce their potential to participate in furthering our Heavenly Father’s plan for all of his spirit children. Faithful Latter-day Saints cannot afford to look upon children as an interference with what the world calls “self-fulfillment.” Our covenants with God and the ultimate purpose of life are tied up in those little ones who reach for our time, our love, and our sacrifices.

    How many children should a couple have? All they can care for! Of course, to care for children means more than simply giving them life. Children must be loved, nurtured, taught, fed, clothed, housed, and well started in their capacities to be good parents themselves. Exercising faith in God’s promises to bless them when they are keeping his commandments, many LDS parents have large families. Others seek but are not blessed with children or with the number of children they desire. In a matter as intimate as this, we should not judge one another.

    I especially agree with the last line: we should not judge one another when we are not privy to all the information. But we certainly can, as Elder Oaks did, talk about alarming trends in the aggregate, and comment on and engage in conversation about troubling attitudes we see in our society and communities. And this is, indeed, an alarming trend.

  6. LDSP, right on. One of my pet peeves is when a person posts on an alarming general trend and then commenters spend all of their time raising objections about their specific individual exceptions. (My personal opinion is that this is a result of our victim society, but I digress). So, can we agree that, in aggregate, divorce is bad, but there are definitely individual exceptions and *your individual divorce* may be justified? In the same sense, the societal trend against having kids is bad, but *your individual case* may be more than OK? Can we also agree that people who judge you unfairly are all idiots so that we can move on to discussing the OP? Thanks.

  7. People tend to live longer as well, due to things like anti-biotics and blood pressure medication. I think quality of life is an important factor for those getting older. Many people may save and choose their own options to not be a burden to their kids and grandkids.

    I don’t think it always follows that one’s children and grandchildren can take care of aging parents. Near the end of life, physical caring (lifting, bathing, etc.) is quite difficult. Just because a family is not able to physically care for their loved one, doesn’t mean love isn’t there.

    Finally, plenty of families do not end up caring for their aged parents or grandparents for many reasons. Personally, I had kids to have kids, not as an insurance policy as I age.

  8. John Taber, you, and the pertinent follow-up comments, are quite right, which is why one of the key phrases in my post is “voluntary sterility.”

    Aerin, nothing you say is actually wrong, but you also seem to be falling into the “obsession with exceptions” trap that Geoff mentions right above you. Indeed, elder care is difficult and complicated, and many aging relatives will need to be under long-term professional assistance. Certainly, nobody implied that such is due to a lack of love.

    BUT, that’s not relevant here. Individual exceptions aren’t the issue; societal trends are. The falling birth rate absolutely will be responsible for an excess of publicly-funded elder care far beyond what could be sustained at healthier fertility rates.

    Thanks for having kids, though. As a teacher, I count on that for job security! 🙂

  9. I’d also recommend getting a Living Will. Let your children know (and the hospital and the courts know) what you want to happen to you if you are unable to make decisions and are no longer able to live without life support.

    And don’t feel bad if you need to place a parent in a nursing home. None of my relatives have gone that route (yet) but I had the good fortune to meet the mother-in-law of a prominent member of the Seventy–the mother-in-law lived for close to a decade in a nursing home. Her family visited frequently, but weren’t able to keep her in their home. I have no idea how her care was paid for, but I think in her situation it was the best option.

  10. Ironically, there is a direct link between a society that refuses to sacrifice their desires to care for children and a society that also happens to refuse to sacrifice their desires to care for their aged parents.

    So I do take exception, as kindly as possible, with the following quoted comment:

    “And don’t feel bad if you need to place a parent in a nursing home.”

    I will only speak for myself. I would feel bad. I take quite seriously the last charge the dying Savior of the world gave while on the cross to his beloved disciple. I don’t insist you should lose your life in the service of your parents. But don’t ask me to excuse myself from the duty in the name of avoiding a guilty conscience.

    Thought experiment (please try to avoid raising extraordinary exceptions and circumstances that seek to circumvent personal application of the principle of the Savior’s dying concern for his aging Mother’s future):
    -Parents (should) care for children who can’t care for themselves. They care for children whose actions would cause certain injury to themselves or others if not closely attended to.
    -Instead of doing this much of society either forgoes having children or farms out the “caring” to day care and subsequently school.

    Do we not see a parallel between this and the care of our aged parents?
    Yes, our aged parents often can’t care for themselves and they might even cause harm to themselves and others if they aren’t closely supervised. But why view this the same way we view raising our own children? We put in the time to do it, because it’s our duty as parents. Well, what I’m suggesting is that unfortunately, we do view “parental care” the same way we view childcare these days. We try to farm off and tell others not to fell bad.

    No doubt it’s a good thing to care for our parents enough to spend a lot of money on having someone else care for them. Same is true with our children. I’d suggest its an even better thing to personally provide care for our parents (and children) enough to sacrifice our time, or profession, our pursuit of wealth or leisure and instead actually attend to them personally, as best as we are able.

    Family, isn’t it about…

  11. I like the post, but I see two objections.

    Objection the first is that people have to have a very *high* time preference to put off lots of present satisfactions for a better retirement. The second is that people who do have a very high time preference are probably better off materially just working harder and saving–in effect, living off other people’s kids. It’s the tragedy of the commons.

  12. I don’t know how to prove it, or quantify it, but I also think there is a link and some sort of cause/effect, or maybe slippery slope linking the devaluing of one’s own progeny (or possible progeny) to the devaluing of children in general, and from there to actual child abuse.

    I think the link between devaluing one’s own progeny and abortion should be intuitively obvious, though I acknowledge that it may not be for some people.

    If it is not important to a person for him/her to have children, then the mental/emotional barriers (internal influences) to abortion diminish. And if it is not socially important to have children, then the social stigma (external influences) against abortion decreases.

    This is one of the themes that I harp on: If you remove the barriers and social stigma against X, you eventually get more X. Firstly among the “marginal cases”, but then you get margin creep until a not-insignificant percentage of people are on the other side of the margin. (That has been illustrated well in the examples of divorce and out-of-wedlock pregnancies. And BTW, I believe it will shortly be illustrated in regards to homosexual and bisexual sexual conduct.)

    It is by using that line of reasoning that I postulate that the devaluing of progeny, and thereby devaluing children in general, including other people’s, is a removal of some portion of a mental/social taboo against child abuse. It’s one less reason that a “marginal case” child-abuser has to not abuse a child.

  13. I think that whether or not people have children is a highly personal decision and one not to be taken lightly.
    I’m a high school teacher, and I gotta tell ya, I’ve dealt with parents who should NEVER have been parents. Seriously. These parents are either checked out, strung out, or worn out, and it’s sad because they act as though they had nothing to do with this human being, that lives in their house.
    Some of these parents don’t even talk to their kids.
    I don’t think it’s an issue of devaluing children so much as a recognition that raising children is difficult, and it demands time, sacrifice, and money. Families are a significant investment, and it takes dedication.
    I think it’s selfish to bring children into the world without the intention of being a parent.
    I don’t think enough emphasis is placed on the intentional birthing of children.
    In the African American community, birthrates are high, but 71% of our babies are born into single parent households.
    So, where do we begin to have a real conversation about why people are choosing not to have children?
    Of course you can’t deny the trend, but what the numbers aren’t doing is taking into account individual experience. What is the reason? It has to be more than just money. What about children of parents who are divorced? Children of absentee parents? Adults who were abused as children by their parents? Adults who were caretakers for younger siblings? Adults who grew up in large (or extremely large-note the Duggars) families? Adopted children?
    So, what drives people to decide not to have children?
    So, I feel like it’s a little…disingenuous to be concerned about the slowing trend of births and then be simultaneously indignant about people bringing children into the world when they are clearly not ready to be a parent. There are so many factors that are not taken into account here.
    I don’t think that we’ll go the way of Western Europe or Japan in our birthing trends…I have to disagree in the assumption that this trend is an indication of a devaluing of life and children. I believe that people are reassessing their willingness to devote their time and energy to raising children.
    No one should have children just to have children.
    I go back and forth at times about whether or not I want to have children, even as a member of the Church because 1) I don’t trust my body to handle a pregnancy, and 2) There are many things in my life that I tend to enjoy-sans children. But, when I do decide to do something, I see it through. So when I do have children, I’m going to be a parent. I’m going to invest not just my money, but my time, faith, and heart into my family.
    For women, it is a highly personal decision because much of that decision involves our bodies, and unfortunately, too many women end up parenting alone. So it’s a huge decision.
    The good thing is that people are beginning to think much more carefully about bringing children into the world, and to me, that’s a positive out of the trend, especially when I have a 15 year old student, who has significant issues of his own, preparing to be a father.
    The issue of bringing children into the world goes beyond obligation. What about the elderly parents whose children grow to despise them? What if they never could do right? What if, after doing everything right, essentially doing their do diligence as parents, their children go way out of bounds and treat them with disrespect and make wrong choices?
    I believe that having children should be intentional, and though the condom ads are a little ridiculous, it does make a good point to that 15 or maybe even 20 year old couple that’s thinking about having unprotected sex. For that age group, money talks. When they find how much they’d have to work and save and spend on just one infant…if that makes a difference in their decision, I’ll take it.
    And that goes for anyone. I’ve just seen too many people just poppin’ out kids and not raising them or taking the time to put anything in them, or, sickly enough, using them as pawns in their little games. It’s alarming and heartbreaking because children do not ask to be here, and even then there’s no guarantee that they’ll rise to the occasion to nurture and care for their aging parents, or that they would feel like they had to because their parents had not first fulfilled their obligations.

  14. Interesting post. This obviously will affect social security and other systems that rely on the young and healthy to carry the financial burden of the sick and elderly. A huge complicating factor associated with an increase in Western birth rates is a trend in human jobs being replaced by machines. I wonder what influence this has, and will have, on population growth and this social contract you’ve mentioned.

  15. Sister D (@4:52pm), Totally agree with your statement that some people just never should be (or should have been) parents.

    On another point, Caucasian-Americans currently are going the way of Western Europe. The only thing keeping the US’s birth-rate at or slightly above replacement levels are the birth-rates of Hispanics and African-Americans. Without immigration, we’d have no growth in population at present.

  16. *I don’t think that we’ll go the way of Western Europe or Japan in our birthing trends…*

    We already have. Middle class American birth rates are already below replacement and trending downward.

    *I have to disagree in the assumption that this trend is an indication of a devaluing of life and children. I believe that people are reassessing their willingness to devote their time and energy to raising children.*

    Your second sentence contradicts your first. If people ‘reassess their willingness to have kids’ and end up not having them, its because they value them less than they ought. Usually because there is fun stuff they like to do that kids will interfere with.

    One should not put off having kids until you can lavish time and affection and such on them. Kids whose parents are too tired to there for them all the time, or who are stressed and get angry/emotional, do just fine. Basically the magic ingredients are getting married and staying married, meeting minimal physical needs (and I do mean ‘minimal’), and some affection. Everything beyond that is bonus territory. I think its ironic that our culture has increasingly high and even bizarre demands for the standard of parenting at the same time that we’ve stopped parenting.

    **No one should have children just to have children.**

    Of course they should. If you’re married, you don’t need some special reason to have kids. Childlessness isn’t and shouldn’t be the default. Having children is the normal course of grown-up, adult life.

    We started having kids at a young age and have continued to have them. The financial and physical and emotional burden has been great. But the blessings here and now, later in life, and in the life to come, have been and will be greater.

    Some people have special circumstances that limit the children they can have. But I fear that far too many people who put off or strongly limit their children are trading their souls for an extra vacation.

  17. Adam G.: But I fear that far too many people who put off or strongly limit their children are trading their souls for an extra vacation.
    I don’t think that’s a fair assumption, given that there are so many factors that aren’t taken into account, and I think that’s what should drive the conversation. We shouldn’t just assume that this trend is a direct result of selfishness or a devaluing of life.
    I didn’t contradict myself by saying that the trend meant to me that people are reassessing their intentions and motivations for having children. I would like to think the opposite of your conclusion that the person who decides not to have children has thought it through and can admit to themselves that having children is not something they want to do. I think that it’s better than having children and being perpetually miserable and ultimately having the child suffer as a result. Now, maybe for some, having a child might change their outlook, but…it’s a decision that needs to be weighed carefully.
    Adam G: “One should not put off having kids until you can lavish time and affection and such on them. Kids whose parents are too tired to there for them all the time, or who are stressed and get angry/emotional, do just fine. Basically the magic ingredients are getting married and staying married, meeting minimal physical needs (and I do mean ‘minimal’), and some affection. Everything beyond that is bonus territory. I think its ironic that our culture has increasingly high and even bizarre demands for the standard of parenting at the same time that we’ve stopped parenting.”
    I think that’s a very rather naive and oversimplified view of a very complicated issue. The ingredients you described are “magic” indeed, in light of an over 50% divorce rate in our country, teen pregnancy rates are significant issue in places like Texas, where I live, and a slowly recovering economy. We are looking at this issue through the lens of belief. Not everyone embraces what we believe about families. Even then, it should still be a carefully considered decision because people recognize how much things change when children are brought into the world.
    However, I believe that the Church should be real about this. Our leaders have said before that having children needs to be a prayerful decision between a husband and wife. Bringing children into the world, even in the name of belief, shouldn’t be the “next step,” so to speak without some careful consideration. I think that we far too often portray the happy smiling faces and make it seem so cookie cutter.
    There should be high demands and standards for parenting. We should be invested in our children and make sure that we are taking the time to enrich them with experience, values, and how to become responsible adults.
    Not everyone should be parents. One should put off having children until they are sure that they can handle the responsibility, until they are ready and willing to make sacrifices and do what they have to for their kid. People should prepare and plan for children because it’s a 24/7 commitment. Children do not asked to be here, and they are not a means to an end. They are precious gifts from Heavenly Father, and it is a responsibility that we must be up to task for.
    My parents planned for me. They were always involved in my life, and even when they were bone tired, they NEVER gave up on their first priority, which was being a parent and being involved in my life. They fed me spiritually, nourished my mind, and taught me to be independent. I can appreciate the emotional, financial and physical burden it’s been, but they planned for that. They recognized that and went ahead in their decision to have me.
    Just because people choose not to have children doesn’t mean that they don’t value life or children. Like I said before, I don’t believe that this trend will go to the extreme…
    What I meant by my statement “people shouldn’t have children just to have children” is that the making of families needs to be intentional.
    Adam G.: “Of course they should. If you’re married, you don’t need some special reason to have kids. Childlessness isn’t and shouldn’t be the default. Having children is the normal course of grown-up, adult life.”
    Maybe for you.
    Again, it’s not like that for some people. The power of experience isn’t taken into account here.
    I’m reminded of something my grandmother used to say: “I’ve seen a dog give birth but that don’t make it a mother.”
    For some people, having children doesn’t usher in the “normal course of grown-up adult life.” I love my cousin to death, but she’s the most selfish little thing you’ll ever meet, and she has a child whom her mother habitually cares for.
    My grandparents are in their 70s and have yet to enjoy their lives together for raising great-grandchildren because the previous two generations neglected to step into the “normal course of grown-up adult life.” They will have raised three generations and are now raising a fourth because of poor decisions, a lack of parenting, and just havin’ babies just to have babies.
    So I say again with even more conviction: people shouldn’t have children just to have children. The choice to have children (ideally) should be a well informed, prayerful decision. No one should bring children into the world when there are significant factors that would negatively impact that child’s health and overall wellbeing.
    I believe that the reasons for this trend is much more complicated than we’d like to believe.

  18. I love this! I believe that this is the reason for the promise in the fifth commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long on the earth.

    When we honor our own parents by caring for them when they are not able to care for themselves, we show our own children the example of what to do for us later on. Everything we send out will return to us.

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