Was Having Kids Ever a Paying Venture?

Friday, October 16, 2009, 9:00 AM
Joe Carter

Full post available at http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2009/10/16/was-having-kids-ever-a-paying-venture/
Bryan Caplan asks and answers:

One popular story about the decline in family size over the last two centuries goes like this: Back in the old days, having kids paid. Children started working when they were quite young, and provided for their parents in their old age. Then industrialization and/or the welfare state came along and changed everything. Young children ceased to contribute much economically to their families, and once Social Security, Medicare, and so on were in place, people stopped supporting their aging parents.

It turns out that this story is only half true.
Upon reading Mr. Carter's full blog post, I sent the following email out to the person who forwarded it to me and a few others:
For those who believe that until the industrial revolution, children were viewed as an economic assets and they only became seen as an economic burden in the last couple of hundred years, I offer two quotes, each of which would be meaningless under this commonly held understanding:

Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius, Divine Institutes 6:20 (A.D. 307):
[Some] complain of the scantiness of their means, and allege that they have not enough for bringing up more children, as though, in truth, their means were in [their] power . . . or God did not daily make the rich poor and the poor rich. Wherefore, if any one on any account of poverty shall be unable to bring up children, it is better to abstain from relations with his wife.
Martin Luther, Luther's Work, Vol. 5, p. 332:
Although it is very easy to marry a wife, it is very difficult to support her along with the children and the household. Accordingly, no one notices this faith of Jacob. Indeed, many hate fertility in a wife for the sole reason that the offspring must be supported and brought up. For this is what they commonly say: "Why should I marry a wife when I am a pauper and a beggar? I would rather bear the burden of poverty alone and not load myself with misery and want." But his blame is unjustly fastened on marriage and fruitfulness. Indeed, you are indicting your unbelief by distrusting God's goodness, and you are bringing greater misery upon yourself by disparaging God's blessing. For if you had trust in God's grace and promises, you would undoubtedly be supported. But because you do not hope in the Lord, you will never prosper.
So, apparently, contraception was being used in the fourth and sixteenth century because couples (or men, at any rate) saw children as too great an economic burden. Otherwise, Lactantius and Luther wouldn't have addressed that excuse.

Having made this observation, I do believe that it is true that having children is much more of an economic burden today than it need be. Without question, the federal income tax code was much more favorable to having children in the late 1940s and the 1950s than it is today. Further, our Social Security and Medicare systems favor the childless and those with few children over those with many, allowing the former to free ride on the latter. In addition, in recent decades, the phenomenon of small families who spend the money saved by having few or no children on luxury homes and automobiles, exotic vacations, etc. has put further economic and social pressure on those with more children. In each case, however, it is the public and private choices we have made which have pushed up the relative cost of children. We could make different public policy choices and live different lifestyles and afford to have more children. In the end, we choose not to because we love things that rust, rot, burn down and are soon forgotten over children.


Family Man said...

I'm not sure I follow the logic of the research concluding that children are liabilities rather than assets when valued in economic terms.

So far as I can tell, the evidence is that both "back then" and "now" children contribute a deficit to the family (costing more than than bring in) and that adults never receive any "return" on their "investment" as parents and grandparents, since adults, both in middle age and old age, continue to contribute a surplus (bringing in more than they spend), with the implication that adults of all ages are subsidizing children, but children never grow up to return the favor.

Let's assume that all available evidence really does support those claims. I still see a high "return on investment" from children, it's just that the return gets paid to someone other than the original "shareholder." That is, children constitute a net expense to their parents and perhaps also to their grandparents throughout the entire lives of all three parties, but those very same "liability" children later become an "income-producing asset" for their own children and their own grandchildren, which by far makes up for their childhood cost to prior generations. Let's face it, we spend more time as productive adults than as consumptive children, if we live to average life-expectancy. Let's also face the obvious: Noah and his wife provided for three sons, who in turn provided for Noah's grandchildren, and so on, until we came to 6 billion people. History reveals a general pattern of increasing wealth-production.

One of the articles cited warns that if you are counting on your children to subsidize your retirement, you might be disappointed. But what if you are counting on your children to raise your grandchildren and great-grandchildren? What if you are counting on your grandchildren to share the gospel with your great-great-grandchildren? Suddenly the "return on investment" lingo seems less significant, doesn't it?

GL said...

The notion that one never sees a return on having children is based on a very modern belief that the elderly can save enough in their most productive years to live without any assistance from their children in their old age. In fact, Social Security was created in part to allow the elderly to live more independently in their old age and not be "a burden to their children".

That has sown a very bad way of thinking in society at large. Now the elderly are constantly being hawked to by charlatans (oops, I mean investment advisors) who tell them that they don't want to be a burden to their children and the younger generation has no expectation that they might have to support their parents in their old age. This is just one more way in which we undermine the family, which, in turn undermines our entire society (the economy included). Families are meant to take care of their members. Men in the prime of life are meant to support their children and, when the time comes, their parents and/or their parents-in-law. A society and economy built on any other premise is very unhealthy and will have serious problems as consequence.