When it Doesn’t Pay to have Kids

This week I’ll be meeting with a financial planner to figure out how my wife and I will pay for retirement and for college education of our two kids. The first item won’t be too much trouble, provided we start planning now. But the cost of giving our children a decent college education, especially if it’s a private college education, is frightening.

I don’t know how college got so goddamned expensive, but sending two kids to a private college at the same time — even a college that’s well below the top of the cost scale — would cost nearly two-thirds of our annual family income. Why didn’t we just use birth control!

That leads me to the question of why people choose to have kids. One of the most profound and consequential trends today is the drop in the birth rates in developed and developing countries. An article last month in National Geographic examined the dramatic drop in the birth rate in Brazil, where couples, on average, are having fewer than two kids.

Birth rates that are too low to replace the population are a reality that’s well established in Europe and East Asia. But now it’s happening pretty much everywhere except Africa.

The question “Why?” has been answered by lots of so-called experts, to the point where we’ve developed a conventional wisdom that says, “Birth rates drop dramatically when you reduce infant mortality and educate women.” That’s probably true, but experts seem to ignore a glaringly obvious point: The financial incentive to have children has gone with the wind.

A hundred years ago, when most of us lived on farms, having more kids meant having more farm hands. Kids were an integral part of the economic engine that provided for families. Your kids were also your social security. Who would otherwise take care of you when you got old and feeble?

Today we don’t live on farms anymore, and in developed countries (at least we hope) we have a financial safety net, through pensions and the Social Security system, which will provide for us when we’re old. So what’s the point of having kids, who only show up on the expense side of the ledger?

I decided to have kids because I longed for them. Something inside me said I simply wouldn’t be complete without children. Having children was an emotional awakening. I never knew I could love anything so much.

Philosophically, I’ve come to believe having kids is my raison d’etre . The drive to reproduce is something humans share with all of God’s biological creation. There may have been a time when I thought my mission was to be a great journalist or great performer or the author of the next great American novel. But I never achieved any of that and I no longer think it would have been so meaningful if I had.

If my reasons for having kids make no financial sense, all I can say is that economists don’t know everything.

But let me pose a couple of questions. Can I really be sure the state and my savings accounts will take care of me when I get old? Am I sure I won’t need a close relation, of working age, to look after me when poor health and senility take their toll on me and my wife?

In twenty years, we may get a better picture of what life is like for people, growing old, who have chosen not to have children. We’ll really get a good look at that in countries like Italy and Germany, where the birth rates are so low they’re well on their way to becoming big old folks’ homes.

Overpopulation is certainly a problem in this world of ours. The optimist in me hopes this reduction in birth rates is a positive adjustment, which will eventually lead to a world with a sustainable number or people who maintain a sustainable birth rate. But human behavior may not that logical.

The drive to reproduce has been a product of our sexual drive and our economic realities, not to mention the need to counteract disease, death and war. The sex drive is the same today, but everything else is in a dramatic state of flux. Maybe the best we can do is follow our yen to have children, or not, and hope for the best.

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