Parents Are Only Happy with Kids When They Can Afford Them

A large new study shows that parents are only content with children when they don't have to stress about bills.

Parenting is expensive. By even the most conservative estimates, the average American family spends $300,000 to raise one child from birth to age 17. That number is growing every year, however, as prices for child care and the general cost of living increase. This cost is a big drain on parents’ happiness about, well, being parents, according to a new study from economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Clark published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Blanchflower and Clark studied the life satisfaction of one million people over the course of ten years in 35 countries and found that, yes, children make parents happy but only when parents have the financial means to afford them. When financial stress wasn’t a factor, children increased happiness; overall, when parents were struggling to pay the bills, children reduced parents’ happiness. This fact might sound obvious, but Clark and Blanchflower’s data sheds a lot more light on the contributing factors. Fatherly spoke to Blanchflower about his findings, the state of contentment among parents, and what financial certainty actually looks like.

Could you tell me a bit more about your study?

The European Union have conducted these surveys called the Euro Barometers. They ask people about how happy they are. There have been consistent findings in the happiness research, including what we’ve written about. One of the main findings is unemployment makes people unhappy. The other one is that marriage makes people happy, and that is that happiness is U shaped in age, so there’s a midlife crisis.

I think one of the big puzzles has actually been that in this study, children tend to to not come in positive on the happiness grid. What that means is that children don’t appear to make people happy. There’s even evidence in some of the findings that having kids makes people less happy. I wondered: If you have one kid, why would you have more if they didn’t make you happy?

What did you find, looking at this study?

We have data on a million people, across eight years, from 35 countries. What we found across all data was that children lower happiness. So we just asked people: Do you have difficulty paying your bills? Once you control for that, [for parents who don’t struggle, having] children becomes a positive. People talking about the effects of children on happiness are [ignoring] the issue that kids are expensive. Once you take account of the fact that having kids are expensive, [for parents who can afford to pay the bills,] children don’t make you unhappy.

So, if parents have trouble paying the bills, kids stress them out more? Was there an income threshold in the study where kids suddenly start increasing life satisfaction?

We just asked people if they’re struggling. However, we do know bout people’s level of schooling. Even people who are doing pretty well — I mean, I have children who have master’s degrees and they’re highly qualified and they have decent incomes — but they are still struggling. My oldest daughter has three kids, two and under, and they spend $3,500 a month on child care. 100 bucks a week on diapers. And they buy eight gallons of milk a week. Even if you’re earning well, that’s a struggle. It looks to me that, for young people, having kids is an expensive proposition.

Was there anything that surprised you, given how so much of this is so common sense?

I had not expected to see this nice, clean result that we have. In all my 40 years of doing research, I had never done anything quite so clean. There is some evidence that says that your kids make you happier than someone else’s kids — like step kids or kids from a prior relationship.

Based on what you found, are there any specific recommendations that you have for policy makers?

The implications are obvious. We can do something to help people deal with the cost of children. This is particularly relevant because of the declining birth rates and aging populations. We’d like to see people having more children. You can do examples of places like Norway, where they actually have free child care programs.

Perhaps what we should be doing is giving tax relief to parents. Politicians have started to talk about it. Elizabeth Warren has, and others are. But you might think that, given all the loan issues, that subsidizing child care might raise the wellbeing of young parents, which would probably be a good thing.

Morally, this doesn’t look like a big deal. It looks like it would generate an increase of wellbeing and happiness in a society, particularly for young parents who have been struggling. Many young people have put off having children because of the cost of it. So this might have a positive effect on the birth rate.