I really dislike rants. They tend to smack of self-congratulatory sanctimony and smugness. As well, they are often filled with logical fallacies like attacks against the person rather than reasoned arguments against that person’s arguments. So, I am going to try not to fall prey to the sin of rabid ranting in my column today.
The temptation to rant is strong here because I am writing in response to Christopher Sarlo’s recent article on the web page of the Fraser Institute that is receiving a lot of publicity. The topic is on the “reality of raising children in lower income and newer immigrant households.”
Sarlo wants to reassure these folks that if we eliminate the “distinct middle-class bias” in estimating the cost of raising children we will realize that the marginal cost of raising a child is a mere $3,000 to $4,500 per annum per child. In another part of his paper, he lowers this cost to between $2,500 and $4,000.
Sarlo’s fundamental assumption is that couples rationally decide to have children and spend time reasoning about the cost of children before they decide to commit to this voluntary life-style choice. The bias of middle-class discretionary choices to meet unnecessary childhood “wants” may discourage lower income and newer immigrant householders from choosing to have children and that would be a bad thing. To correct this, he makes a case for the affordability of having children based on the real needs of cheap kids.
Another of Sarlo’s assumptions is that having children is a private and individual choice made for the well-being of the chooser and has nothing to do with society at large. As he puts this, “it is hard to escape the conclusion that some researchers regard children as a parents’ contribution to society (rather than as a strictly private decision that improves their own wellbeing). Children are thus a burden that parents somehow deserve compensation for.”
A further unstated assumption is that children themselves should have no expectation or aspiration to anything but the meeting of their most basic needs for food, shelter and clothing.
And costs like housing or daycare should not be considered in the costs because with the exception of the only 27 per cent of parents who do not own homes, housing is a personal choice of parents for lifestyle and investment purposes and many families can live without daycare when one parent “chooses” to stay home when children are very young. Cars are owned independent of the existence of children, as are many acquisitions in parental lives, so should similarly be disregarded.
Sarlo adds the following encouraging advice to poorer parents.
“Low-income families have always found ways (via home gardens, savings strategies, using hand-me-downs and used toys and furnishings) to creatively cover their children’s needs. In some cases they received assistance from family, friends, local agencies and government programs. In many other cases they were able to do it largely on their own.”
So why does this trouble me so? Well, first, the assumption that parents always make rational and costed calculations about when to have children is an empirical claim, although there is much stated evidence which belies it.
More importantly, however, is the absence of any consideration of the aspirations of children or any thought of the importance of the children we raise to be the next generation of citizens of Canada. Is it enough to tell individuals that the basic necessities for procreation are within their reach? Is it morally responsible to claim that the state has no role to play in the raising of children?
The discretionary spending of more affluent Canadians on children’s clothes, sports activities, music lessons, exposure to reading and various other cultural and recreational activities prepares those children for economically and socially richer lives. Such children expect to attend university and to lead in the vocations of their choices.
Those of us who argue for subsidized daycare and accessible opportunities for less privileged children to participate in music, sports and cultural activities do so on the grounds that a more level playing field optimizes children’s choices as they mature. Further, these children are the next generation of persons who will participate in our democratic nation state for better or for worse.
To believe that what parents can provide is just an individual personal choice is socially myopic and fails to recognize the critical role of each generation in the collective governance of Canada that is the nature of our democracy.
One thing Sarlo neglects to consider is the cost-saving of eliminating free public schooling. If we eliminated this, think of the relief to the taxpayer. Think of the cost-saving to parents. Fewer clothes to buy, no school supplies.
Oops, I better stop here. I feel a rant coming on.
» Deborah C. Poff, Ph.D., is president and vice-chancellor of Brandon University. She is also editor of the Journal of Business Ethics, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Academic Ethics. Her column appears monthly.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition August 31, 2013