Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The cost of raising children

The cost of raising children is nothing but a statistical construct. As soon as you start reading into it, you discover is that rich children 'cost' more money to raise, but poor families spend a greater percentage of their income on raising their children than rich ones do. A child in a developing country 'costs' less than one thousand US dollars a year. An American child 'costs' over USD 16,000. Young children cost less. Teenage children cost more. Third and fourth children cost more than first and second ones.

In other words, the ‘cost of raising children’ is anything but. The measures, of which there are a plethora – from online calculators on bank websites to government booklets and reports, all ostensibly designed to help parents prepare for their impending financial ruin – only refer to the money that is spent on children, and almost always by the parents alone. They also invariably raise more questions than they answer.

For instance, I would be interested to know if families on low incomes who happen to live in high-income areas spend more money than those who don't – either because of social pressures or lack of availability of budget options. I say this because I'm reasonably certain that my partner and I would have spent a lot more money on our children had we raised them in Italy, both because second hand clothing shops are more common in New Zealand (to name one item of spending) and because it is more socially acceptable in New Zealand to clothe your children in second-hand garments.

(My mother, who was as working class as they come, had a strange obsession with buying Petit Bateau singlets and onesies for our small children – eye-wateringly expensive cotton numbers which I'm sure were of the highest quality, but it didn't matter very much because at their perfectly ordinary rate of growth they got to wear them for approximately twenty-five minutes each.)

The cost of raising children, then, should also account somehow for the cost of not raising them according to the prevailing norms and expectations.

Even more complex are the politics that all of these calculations subsume or conceal. In the United States, typical estimates begin with the privately borne costs of prenatal care and delivery (the latter ranging from USD 9,600 for a regular birth to USD 12,500 for a Caesarean section, although complications can push the price into the hundreds of thousands), and end with college tuition, making the family budget resemble that of a small autonomous state. In other countries, some or all of those items are heavily subsidised or free altogether, reducing the burden on the nuclear unit and thus inequality by birth. Moreover, non-monetary forms of social investment – call it the unpaid labour of caring, not just by parents but by the wider community – are also generally not captured.

And yet, in a world in which as many as a billion children live in poverty – 1 in 4 in the world’s richest countries – it pays to remind ourselves not just of the politics, but also of the crude economics of it all. It is in that spirit that I offer you the following satirical piece, whilst at the same time not being quite sure if it is entirely satirical.

Born in Munich in 1882, Karl Valentin was a giant of German cabaret who counted Bertolt Brecht among his collaborators. While he appeared in a number of silent films, his main talent was for verbal comedy, and he has left us a number of surreal dialogues, monologues and scenes which read as short stories. One of my favourites is the letter to his daughter Bertl, below, translated into English by me from a translation into Italian by Mara Fazio for her 1980 edition of Valentin’s collected writings.

Munich, 3 February 1932

Distinguished daughter,

With reference to our last meeting of 5 August 1931, I take the liberty of forwarding you an invoice for your existence, hoping that you will agree as to the amounts.

- Midwife’s honorarium, paid on 21 September 1910: DM 20.00
- 1 tin bath tub: DM 6.00
- Tepid water, for 6 years, at 10 pfennigs per day: DM 219.00
- Sponge consumption for 6 years, at 5 pfennigs per day: DM 108.50
- 1 baby changing units, plus equipment for a new born child : DM 100.00
- 1 litre of milk a day, for approx.. 6 years, plus breadcrumb-based gruel: DM 438.00
- Compensation for labour pains, estimated by your mother to the statutory minimum: DM 100.00

School years:
- Enrolment fee: DM 2.20
- School uniforms and clothing: DM 500.00
- Books: DM 90.00
- Mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks, incl. Saturday afternoons, for a total of 1,386 days: DM 29.00
- Lunch and dinner, at 1 mark per day, until 21 years of age: DM 6,550.00- Half a litre of beer per day, at 10 pfennigs per day, from the age of 10: DM 1,204.50
- Small expenses allowance, from the age of 7 to the age of 21: DM 1,000.00
- Photographic portraits (5),: DM 40.00
- Medical expenses and cauterisation of 16 and 1/2 verrucas on the right hand: DM 120.00
- Ecclesiastical fees: DM 200.00
- School fees: DM 150.00
- 1/5 litre of coffee per day, at 15 pfennigs per day: DM 1,120.00
- 12 litres of water per year - not accounted for: DM ,.–
- Shingle haircut: DM 5.00
- Shampoo for 6 years, at 3 marks per week: DM 936.00
- Cash expenses for movie theatres, dance halls, etc.: DM 3,570.00
- Clothing from the age of 14 to the age of 21, at 500 marks per year including underwear: DM 3,144.00
- French, English and literature lessons: DM 540,00
- Piano and guitar lessons: DM 700.00
- Trip to Königsberg: DM 83.00
- Stamps and phone calls to Königsberg: DM 150.00

Total: DM 24,625.20

In consideration of the fact that we are flesh and blood, I am pleased to offer you a 10% discount, or DM 2,462.50, for a final total DM 22,162.70.

This invoice is payable within eight days, or I shall be forced to refer the matter to a debt collection agency.

Sincere regards

Karl Valentin