06/11/2010 10:10 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Much Have You Got to Spend?

Kids cost more for parents who have more.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released its annual report on the cost of raising children. Using data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey, they estimate the costs for one year, then extrapolate out to 17 years with inflation (thus not including college and beyond). The methods are complicated, involving the costs of an extra room, economies of scale, food needs, and so on. It's not just an exercise -- the numbers are meant to be used as a guide for child support, foster care and education program budgets.

But the costs depend on how much money the parents have. That's natural in a descriptive sense, but should it also apply prescriptively? In other words, are the needs of children really determined by the wealth of the adults who care for them, so their wellbeing is relative? In further words, who is children's wellbeing for?

The report breaks families into married versus single, and then breaks the married-couple families into three pre-tax income groups. Here's how the 17-year projections cost out.

I sorted the categories by something like their elasticity, that is, the ratio of rich-parent to poor-parent spending. So, food spending varies the least, so I put it on the bottom. Childcare/education spending varies the most -- which is mostly because higher-income families have wives who work and earn more, and they spend more on childcare -- so I put it on the top. Miscellaneous includes your video games, entertainment and so on.

Consider housing: rich parents spend more than twice what poor parents spend to add a room for per kid (and in the model kids all get their own room). This is morally OK in a world where parents have a right to produce children of their own social status. But where does that leave the rights of children?

Cross posted from the Family Inequality blog.