The 99%: Mamas with Money and Parents in Poverty

How much does it actually cost to raise children?

You might be thinking about the price of diapers, health insurance, or preschool programs when trying to work out a rough answer.  But don’t forget the $230 silver ballet shoes that your five year old will grow out of in a few months, or the $56 baby blanket, or the $500 bassinet.

Our culture is obsessed with all things celebrity, and has long been over concerned with the reproductive goings-on of our favorite stars. Is she pregnant or isn’t she? Did they use IVF? What was the birth like? How fast can she get her pre-baby body back? And then, after all that—what is the little one wearing?

Bravo’s Pregnant in Heels (which is returning this spring!) takes much of this to a new, commodified level.  Rosie Pope, maternity concierge (yes, that’s a thing) is featured on the show, along with her $350 newborn care classes, her $200 maternity jeans (remember, you’ll only need them a few months), and her $130 diaper “clutches.”  With its privileged, pretentious, and seemingly clueless parents-to-be, the show is pregnant with “ ‘look at that rich bitch’ voyeurism” and over-the-top consumption.  Yes, Rosie’s clients are millionaire mamas from Manhattan—but what they’re doing is a reflection of the anxieties so many new mothers feel. 

During graduate school, I worked briefly at a maternity center that offered childbirth classes, new moms groups, and (lots and lots) of retail.  I saw so many expectant and new parents—successful professionals, accustomed to knowing what they were doing and doing it competently—come in feeling slightly hormonal, a little overwhelmed, and extremely tired.  And they coped by buying stuff.  They bought $1,200 strollers and $400 high chairs, and probably just hoped that somewhere along the way, one of those purchases would be the key to navigating this new challenge. In a culture were we glorify mothers without providing them much support, the American consumerist instinct to purchase more things becomes a critical milestone in prepping for parenthood.

All of this skews our sense of just who can afford children.  Last December, financial guru Suze Orman lectured a middle-class family with both parents working full time, telling them they couldn’t afford a second child.  (The couple had originally wanted her advice on whether the mother could give up her job to become a stay-at-home mother once they had a second child, but she dismissed that altogether.)  Suze estimated that a baby costs $700-$1000 dollars a month, with diapers as the only named expense.  And, yes, babies are expensive, and they can be more expensive if they come with special needs. But is Orman really suggesting that a second child is out of the reach of this middle class family?  There must be a way to make it work: what about hand-me-downs from the baby they already have, let alone friends and neighbors?  What about buying things used, and buying only what’s really needed?  Families frequently have to cut back and make sacrifices in other part of their lifestyle to accommodate the children they want to have.  But, really, what else is the money for if not helping you build the life you want?

On a larger scale, this focus on consumption and the expense of having children feeds the idea that poor people shouldn’t have kids.  But as we know, in this country, being poor now means you have a good chance of being poor for a good proportion of your life.  Should poor people just never have children?  While I understand that there are many people out there who happily chose to remain childless, becoming a parent is still an important, meaningful part of life for the many people who do pursue it.  Are we comfortable saying that parenthood should be a class privilege?  In a very thoughtful and thought-provoking essay from 2001, Christopher Jencks explores this idea more fully:

When the Clinton administration unveiled its proposals for revamping Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), it said the plan “signals that people should not have children until they are ready to support them.” Yet for many poor women, that time will never come. Sad to say, there are neither enough good jobs nor enough good husbands to provide every American woman with enough money to support a family. Are we to assume that the losers in this lottery have no right to bear children at all? And, if not, are we really prepared to enforce this principle and all of its implications?

Many people, of course, are comfortable with enforcing just that principle. Rush Limbaugh has said that if you can’t afford diapers and daycare, you shouldn’t have children.  Yes, it would be nice if all parents could afford the necessities for their children. But denying support to families that are already formed does nothing to help children, and relegating parenthood as solely a middle-class privilege does nothing to help individuals who will spend most of their lives in poverty.

Here we have two sides of a worthless coin: the consumerist inflation of costs associated with raising children, and the denial that—because so many families fall so short of affording these trappings of modern parenthood—they are worthy of parenting at all. Neither serves families well at all, and both lose sight of what American parents truly need to support their children.

Previously: The (Class) Difference Between “The Boy Who Lived” and “The Girl on Fire,” Part One, The (Class) Difference Between “The Boy Who Lived” and “The Girl on Fire,” Part Two

by Gretchen Sisson
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Gretchen is a research sociologist with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco. She studies cultural representations and constructions of parenthood and reproductive choice.

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7 Comments Have Been Posted

YES to this. Thank you.

YES to this. Thank you.

Aside from the choice to

Aside from the choice to raise children, the idea that we can choose whether or not to have children is completely false. Particularly for women in poverty. The Catholic church is currently fighting the law that requires insurance companies to pay for birth control universally. More than 50 million Americans don't have health insurance to even warrant an insurance company that may or may not pay for birth control. And after that, the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy is being attacked and stripped in every single state. So before we even get to the point of choosing to <i>raise</i> children, we have the embattled issue of <i>bearing</i> children.

All in all, only the rich decide. They decide for themselves, they decide for the rest of us.

It takes everything.

To paraphrase the great Ron Bennington, no matter how much money you have, having a child takes all of it. Everything you have. All of it. There's no such thing, then, as being able to afford a baby. You make it work.

Suze Orman says a baby

Suze Orman says a baby "costs" $700-$1000 a month? Where? Daycare alone is $1600 a month where I live. For one kid. How about we actually subsidize childcare and parenting in this country, like so many others do? Nobody should have to be able to "afford" a child. We are truly a sick society.

The comment made about

The comment made about subsidizing child care seems to be right on the mark. The main problem, from my point of view, is that the US actively punishes middle-class and working-class women who want to work by virtually abandoning them when it comes to childcare. Out of pocket day care services can sometimes be so expensive that a woman may choose not to work just for that reason, or look for other less secure alternatives (ie older children watching younger, neighbors, etc.). This is also an issue because preschool and daycare can prove to be some of the most important years of learning for a child. However, during periods of economic downturn programs like Headstart are often the first to be cut (while we continue to spend billions on a bloated military budget). In many European countries and some Latin American countries there have been important advances in this area, as women are valued in the workforce and early childhood education is considered fundamental to national growth. It is unfortunate that the "pull-yourself-up by your bootstraps" rhetoric of the right in the US - obviously racist, classist, sexist, heterosexist, etc - has so limited the possibilities of providing adequate care for women and children in this country.

Rich Mommies

As a nanny that has been working with upper middle class and rich parents, I think it's sad to imply that if someone "doesn't have enough money" to have kids, they shouldn't. I know plenty of wealthy people who have plenty of money but minimal parenting skills. I'm not going to start a debate on whether rich people are more dysfunctional and less caring about others than poor people (they might be) but I am going to say that in poor families people rely on each other more and there is often more of a community. A child of a rich couple spends most of their time doing activities and being catered to by nannies because their parents are working all the time. They are usually given many things but not the love and nurturing they deserve. I once worked with a family who had an eight-year old daughter. Her parents worked nearly 60 hours a week. One night as I was putting her to bed she said to me "I don't care about all of this stuff, I just wish my mom was here."
I am sure that rich and poor people have similar problems, but when you can throw money at it it's easier to pretend your kids are being taken care of, even if you're absent as a parent. Poor people don't have that option. The focus should be on whether the parents want a child and are going to be available for them in all the ways they need to be rather than if they can "afford" it.


THANK YOU, from the bottom of my young, impoverished mom heart. I have been shamed and questioned for the existence of my three young children many, many times. I think we do a great job raising them, and I think they're going to be badasses that the world will need, later on. Five, sometimes six, people to a two bedroom apartment, hand-me downs, and rice and beans seems to be serving us just fine, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

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