A lot of discussion has centered around the question “do I want kids” among the 20-something set to the point that the question has moved beyond a mere question regarding parenthood and attained a seemingly existential status. While there’s plenty of reasons for those feelings, the truth about making a choice to be a parent in today’s economic environment is less about the oft asked question “am I an adult” and more about the endgame question “do I want to be poor?” Here’s why we’re asking the wrong questions.
1. Wages In The U.S. Are Low And Have Been Low
Consider that for 20-somethings entering the workforce, and even many 30-somethings, wages have remained stagnant for nearly the entire time they’ve been working. Even before the Great Recession of 2008 wages were hung up like a speedometer with a stuck needle, the economy moved ever faster but workers rarely saw their wages climb along with productivity or corporate profit increases. Post recession, the situation became even worse as a glut of low paying part-time jobs replaced hundreds of thousands of mediocre paying full time jobs.
Need any more proof that wealth has gone down? Here’s some: as recently as 1979, good paying jobs in manufacturing used to be available to anyone willing to work hard. Back then, there was only one person collecting food stamp benefits for every four manufacturing jobs. Today the situation has flipped. There’s four food stamp recipients for every manufacturing job.
And what’s more, everyone knows this. It’s the economy’s worst kept secret. See here and here and especially here.
2. The U.S. Is One Of Only Three Countries That Doesn’t Have Family Leave
The other two countries are New Guinea and Oman. New Guinea only received full independence from Australia in 1975 and is still in the process of trying to industrialize and Oman is a Middle Eastern absolute monarchy. In an age when both people in a marriage must work then not allowing leave in order to provide some kind of home for a newborn is just begging couples to either forgo having children or for someone, usually a new mother, to take a hit to her career advancement. And while Americans are able to take leave to care for a newborn only three states actually require employees be paid during this leave period, California, New Jersey and Rhode Island.
In this kind of situation it could be unwise to have children who will be a drag on advancement and will demand more resources from an already likely financially stretched relationship. Financial strife being the number one predictor of divorce, why would anyone want to jeopardize all that they have?
86% of Americans support the implementation of paid family leave and that includes 73% of Republicans so why hasn’t it happened?
3. For Many People, Having Children Becomes A Question Of Class
Children cost money as any parent will tell you over and over and over. For those people already struggling to make ends meet or get a real career going in a tough economy, making the choice to have children can have consequences beyond balancing their checkbooks.
For members of the middle class living on the knife’s edge between “doing okay” and “struggling” having a child can push them down. The additional expense, the required additional savings, the doctor’s visits, all of it mean that a family in this situation will see their financial life change for the worse. So, consider the generational aspect of this. For those couples whose parents worked hard and moved their families into the middle class the decision to slip back down the economic ladder can be a difficult one to swallow.
Ideally, with rare exception, every generation of a family does a little better than the one before or at least treads water. The decision to have children can mean a conscious reversal of this trend and, while this familial legacy means more to some than it does to others, there’s no doubt that comparing where you are today to where your parents were at your age is no fun if you keep coming up short.
4. Don’t Take The Choice To Have Children For Granted
Many 20-somethings seem to take the option of having kids for granted. Discussions on having children seem to center around the ever present 20 something questions “can I handle this” and “do I really want this” from a standpoint of preference. While there’s no doubt a baby will mean you and your significant other won’t be able to take off for the beach on the weekends or sleep in until 10am on a Saturday these are of the least concern once all the financials are taken into account and they very rarely are.
While you may not be ready for kids the question as to whether you can afford them anyway is the one that really matters. Nothing creates a feeling of desperation like a couple waking up one day to find their birth control has failed and they’re about to have a child when they’re barely getting by as it is. This is how generational poverty begins, too few resources and too many financial responsibilities.
So instead of laboring over vague questions of emotional readiness, consider that you may not live in a country with either the economy or the government willing to enact trade and domestic policies that would allow you the luxury of comfortably having kids…at any time, ever. Being emotionally ready for a child is great but it’s secondary to the questions of money and time.
Work, pay, and family in 21st Century America are different than they were just 30 years ago. Retirement plans have all but disappeared, replaced with 401Ks and mutual funds that rise and crash with the market. And while many of us were brought up to believe that life’s steps would be college, marriage, career, kids, all based on our own choices, the reality of life is proving to be much different. More and more it seems that choices aren’t being made from a position of strength, of many options, but are instead simply a matter of mitigation. The question has moved from “am I ready” to “does it even matter if I’m ready” and that question is the one that should concern us all.