Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Economics of Family Size

Welcome to the first Family Size Blog Carnival!

This post was written for inclusion in the Family Size Blog Carnival hosted by Kerry at City Kids Homeschooling and Patti at Jazzy Mama. Today our participants share their decisions on family size and whether or not to grow their families. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

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When I was in college studying economics, I became fascinated by the idea of using economic theory to analyze lifestyle decisions. No longer just used for quantifying the price of widgets or the profit of firms, economists were now using economic theory to understand how individuals and families make decisions ranging from who to marry to how many children to raise.

The seminal leader in the discipline of economics of the family is Nobel prize-winning economist, Gary Becker, who helped to capture and quantify the amount of "utility," or satisfaction, parents derive from raising children when assessing the associated costs and benefits.

When I first discovered this novel economic theory, I was a decade away from my own child-bearing and family size choices. But now, as I wonder about the family size choices others make as well as my own, I am increasingly curious how parents make "rational consumption" choices regarding the number of children to welcome to their family, whether through birth or adoption.

According to economic theory, what it comes down to is this: parents should welcome more children to their family as long as the "marginal benefits," the benefits derived from each additional child, are greater than the "marginal costs," the monetary and non-monetary costs of each additional child. The benefits of additional children are many and may encompass the joys and rewards of parenting, the closeness of sibling bonds, the opportunities to learn from and with our children, and the long-term prospect of time spent with our adult children and any future grandchildren. The costs of children are also many and include short-term and long-term monetary costs--everything from car seats to college--and also many non-monetary costs like lack of sleep, lack of personal time and space, and the daily demands of parenting. There are also costs, both monetary and non-monetary, physical and emotional, incurred when expecting another child, whether through birth or adoption, that also need to be factored in to family size decision-making.

At some point, according to this economic model, every family arrives at the "optimal" number of children: that number at which one more child would ultimately tip the scale to marginal costs exceeding marginal benefits. So the goal is to conduct our own cost-benefit analysis to determine when that tipping point might be for our family. If we think that the benefits of an additional child outweigh all those costs, then as "rational" decision-makers, we should go for it, we should maximize our utility, our satisfaction, by welcoming another child.

For us, the many benefits of an additional child do currently outweigh the costs, and we would be delighted to grow our family. So what may seem completely irrational to others (4 kids in a small city condo! yikes!), seems entirely rational to us.

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Visit City Kids Homeschooling and Jazzy Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Family Size Blog Carnival!

Please take some time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants below:

  • The Perfect Family The family at Living Peacefully With Children isn't perfect, but the size is just right for them...at least for now.
  • Family Size Carnival Zoie at TouchstoneZ discusses how she loves the extremes of being happily child-free for life to being a mom of several. And on knowing when her family is just the right size.
  • Is Adoption for Me? Christine at African Babies Don't Cry shares why she would consider adoption as the socially responsible way to have a large family.
  • Getting Used to Having Kids Lauren at Hobo Mama went from "probably one, maybe two" to wanting a handful, but not without some major struggles and soul searching along the way.
  • Magic Number For a while, Phoebe at Little Tinker Tales has wondered what the magic number will be for their family, but now thinks she's finally settled on an answer.
  • How Did You Get That Size Jorje explains how she "chose" her family size and why they aren't planning to grow again on Momma Jorje.com.
  • Family Size On A Per Kid Basis Sarah at Parenting God's Children shares how plans change as families grow.
  • More Babies: How, When, Why Joella at Fine and Fair writes to her daughter about when, how, and why she might get a sibling.
  • Family Size Kelly at Becoming Crunchy shares how she has no idea what size her family will end up being; though she used to be sure, a few factors have recently come up to change everything.
  • Thy Will Be Done CatholicMommy hasn't decided how many children she'll have. And she never will. Because, you know, she's Catholic.
  • Sanity and Health Kat at Loving {Almost} Every Moment talks about sanity and health considerations when deciding on her family's size.
  • Love Comes In All Sizes Melissa at White Noise and Mothers of Change shares her family's journey to becoming a family of six!
  • Family Size Liz at Homeschooling in Buffalo discusses how this carnival occurs less than two weeks after "closing up shop" by way of vasectomy.
  • Family Size Blog Carnival Billy, a single mother by choice, writes about the size of her family at My Pathway to Motherhood.
  • Creating Your Perfect Family Size Dr. Alan Singer shares insights from his new book, Creating Your Perfect Family Size.
  • Our Family Size You might not be surprised to learn that Patti at Jazzy Mama can't find any reasons NOT to have more babies.
  • Economics of Family Size Kerry at City Kids Homeschooling uses an economic cost-benefit analysis to determine her family's optimal size.

23 comments:

  1. I'm enjoying this carnival. It's really interesting to see how others discuss their family size. I can't say I've come across your rationale before, but, as it's such a personal decision within the family itself, I can't say I've come across many other decision-making processes either... until today!
    I hadn't really thought in depth about money being a big factor for our family (I wish we could say that's because we're rolling in it!) but I think it does underlie some decisions we've made, but only to concrete them Further. For us, health and emotional well-being were primary factors.

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    1. Phoebe, thank again for participating in this carnival! It was so much fun!

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  2. All very interesting! Nature has a way of playing havoc with decisions made "rationally". I can count on about 3 hands the number of friends and acquaintances who got pregnant with an additional child entirely "by accident"--and these are mature, educated women who surely understand how birth control works. I find it fascinating every time I hear about it. The child is invariably welcomed as a blessing, and economic adjustments are made, and soon the larger family is the "new normal".

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    1. Susan, yes true about accidents-- though I suppose if someone *really* didn't want another they would take more permanent measures, but you are right that I have never met anyone who regrets having another child.

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  3. It's funny how many times people say to us "It must be expensive to raise so many kids". And truthfully, the COST (in $$$) of having kids has never had any part of our decision to have more children. And while I realize all the enormous privilege from where I speak (white, post-secondary educated, living in a metropolitan area, owning a home, etc) I just can't imagine saying that we wouldn't have more children because we can't AFFORD it. There is always going to be room in my heart for one more.

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    1. Yes, it's interesting to look at benefits and costs in both monetary and non-monetary terms. I think that's why I find this lens of economics so interesting: because it seeks to "quantify" the personal decisions families make by assigning "values" to things like sleep deprivation, personal space, clean house, etc.

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  4. I agree with your rationality, somehow the finance side of life has a way of working itself out, as long as we are passoinate about what we are doing. I, too, am passionate about having a large family :)

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    1. I just loved your post, Christine, about growing your family size through adoption. Such a wonderful addition to this blog carnival and I look forward to visiting your blog more frequently.

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  5. This has really been wonderful to read. We have 3 kids and two of them were born while my husband was in law school. We got lots of dirty/crazy looks when I was pregnant, especially with our third. But while the money was VERY tight, my husband was able to spend more time with the newborns, because he had a flexible class schedule, long vacations, and work that could be done from home. So the benefits of time really did out way the cost of no money.

    In my circle of friends and family, it's not just the personal economics of it, but also the world economics of it. So I get a lot of grief about birthing so many children (and PLEASE TELL ME YOUR NOT GOING TO HAVE ANOTHER ONE!!!) over population, and the number of children that need to be adopted are very often discussed as a reason not to have any more. Of course I keep all options open, and actually would love to some day adopt a child. The most important thing for me, is that I can offer love and happiness to a child. And I love the idea of that big family, in years to come- sitting around the holiday table surrounded by many many grandchildren, laughing and playing. I know we are suppose to live in the present, but that future idea keeps me from saying we're done at three.

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    1. This is so interesting, Leigh, because I never really get any comments about having three kids, especially not in terms of world population. In the U.S. the birth rate is just at replacement value and in most other industrialized countries it's below replacement. I look at having more children as adding more great people to this earth who will make it a better place!

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  6. I love this post!! Like you, I still feel that the benefits of welcoming more children to our family outweigh the costs.

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  7. It sounds so scientific and cold, but I think this is kind of how we all approach it, if only in more abstract terms.

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    1. Yes, it's interesting because economists wouldn't say that families approach family size decisions in this calculating way, it's just that the economic analysis is what shows the differential in family size. Why do some families have 2 children and others have 8? Economists would argue that the larger families had higher marginal benefits of additional children and were thus acting "rationally" when they grew their families. I just love thinking about these issues in economic terms!

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  8. What a great post! And what a wonderful family for your children, knowing there is not and never will be a shortage of love.

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    1. Absolutely! Lots of love here! Thanks for participating in this blog carnival. It was great to have you join us!

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  9. I found this carnival via Hobo Mama and Momma Jorje . . . I wish I had known about it, I totally would have participated. I did actually write a post a while back about our family being complete (http://mommainprogress.blogspot.com/2011/09/done.html) but it didn't really address how/why we came to that number. I am new to this blog, and I think I will follow along! (We are also homeschooling, and also have a 5, 3, and 1 year old.) Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Okay, that spacing thing in my comment is really weird. I blame Blogger. It does that to me all the time. What is up with that?

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    2. So nice to have found your blog as a result of this carnival. I look forward to visiting more often!

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  10. I love this! I do a lot of work with others on cost-benefit analyses (usually in terms of substance use in my work as a counselor), but it never occurred to me how appropriate it is to apply it to decisions on family size, too.

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  11. Thanks! Glad you liked the post. I know that Gary Becker also used economic analysis to analyze substance abuse as well, so I wonder if you have come across his research on that.

    Thanks for participating in this great carnival!!

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  12. Thank you for hosting this wonderful carnival. I'm enjoying reading and thinking about everyone's posts.

    Yours has given me a good way to analyze my feelings about our family. Setting aside amounts of physical space and money, I'm thinking of the cost benefit of parenting the way in which I want to. I could see tipping the scales to having to compromise my parenting ability after a certain number of children. If I look at it purely from that point, I think I should have stopped at one child. However, I factor in the benefit of sibling bond, subtracting for the lessened attention, etc, from being one on one, and that changes things. I'd reevaluate this for each child before having another.

    Hmm, so I factor in my emotional attachment to this equation, as well, because it's not something I can separate. I still don't think I can come up with a solution that works for any other family than my own.

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  13. Zoie, thanks so much for participating in the Family Size blog carnival! It was wonderful to have your contribution.

    Yes, cost-benefit analysis is an interesting framework from which to analyze our decisions, or reflect on the decisions we have made. I agree that parenting more kids can change our parenting approach a bit, but I have found that it actually makes me more connected with my kids!

    I am glad you brought up "emotional attachment" as another benefit/cost to consider. As you can see there are a whole host of areas that families could (and do, whether implicitly or explicitly) assign value when determining whether or not to welcome an additional child to the family.

    Thanks again for sharing!

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