Million-Dollar Babies

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On Tuesday, the annual Expenditures on Children by Families report, which tracks how much it costs to raise a child in America, was released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (yes, that's the government bureaucracy charged with this particular tally). According to its latest estimate, a child born in 2007 costs $204,060 to watch over, feed, cart around, educate and house from birth to the age of 18. This amounts to a tenfold increase in less than 50 years. According to the USDA, child-rearing costs have soared since the department began its annual study in 1960, when raising a kid cost a mere $25,229.

While that may sound like a dramatic increase — and could in part explain why more families today are raising only one child — it's actually not much greater than the U.S. inflation rate over the same time period. But consider what the government figures don't take into account, and the onerous repercussions for families nationwide. Take child care. According to the USDA, parents spend an average of $1,220 to $3,020 on child care and education during each of the first two years, depending on household income. Yet the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, a network of more than 805 child care centers nationwide, estimates the bill at $4,388 to $14,647 a year. In urban areas like New York City, where daycare centers are few and overcrowded, parents hire nannies at an average of $31,000 — and that's off the books. Taxes, benefits and insurance can run an additional $6,000 a year. Part of the problem with the official figures is that half of the families surveyed for the government study don't pay for child care at all; either a parent or family caregiver is doing the work for free. The government figures are therefore hugely misleading, as any parent footing a child care bill can attest.

According to the NACCRRA, in 43 states the average annual price for an infant in a child care center is greater than a year's tuition at a public college. And why not start talking about college, even if said child is merely an infant? While the USDA doesn't include college costs in its estimates, since it covers kids only up to age 18, it should take into account the amount of money parents need to save in order to eventually afford those $50,000 tuition bills. Most financial advisers urge parents to set aside a minimum of $1,000 per child a month, which alone would nearly double the government's total childrearing estimate.

Other methodological hiccups mar the government's report. For example, though housing makes up the largest single cost across income groups — 33% to 37% of total expenses — the estimates do not include mortgage principal payments.

Nor does the report take into account the myriad other products and services that parents today consider essential to raising a child. When you count the stroller, car seat, baby formula, crib, pacifiers and diaper cream, the bill for the first year's baby gear alone clocks in at $6,300. That's not including such luxuries-cum-necessities as exersaucers, baby sign-language class, Mommy and Me yoga and bouncy seats for the youngest set — and then soccer, tutoring, piano lessons, iPods and designer jeans once the kids hit school age. Sure, some of this stuff is extraneous. But most of it isn't — if you don't want to feel like you're seriously shortchanging your children.

The USDA's numbers don't just sit idly on a government website. They are used to establish child support guidelines, determine foster care payments and appraise damage arising from personal injuries and wrongful death suits. They are also, ironically, intended to "educate anyone who is considering when or whether to have children." No wonder so many of us are unprepared to handle the financial burden of parenthood, and critical family services are woefully under-budgeted. Last month, the Bush Administration announced plans to eliminate the American Time Use Survey, a five-year-old project conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Census Bureau has been similarly stymied by budgetary cuts and ideological opposition. Given the Administration's indifference to this kind of statistical research, it's no surprise that the realities of working families have been overlooked these past eight years. If the current presidential candidates expect to attend to the needs of the average American family, it's all the more vital that they know, and pay attention to, where families really are at.

— Pamela Paul is the author of Parenting Inc.: How We are Sold on $800 Strollers, Fetal Education, Baby Sign Language, Sleeping Coaches, Toddler Couture, and Diaper Wipe Warmers — and What It Means for Our Children