You Decide: Are there answers to difficult family questions?

Published 12:27 pm Monday, December 11, 2023

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By Mike Walden

I make approximately 50 presentations each year across the state. I always enjoy the last portion of my talks when I take audience questions. Recently I had one of the most challenging questions I’ve ever faced.

A young woman told me she and her husband had one child, and they wanted to have another one. But even though both worked, they simply couldn’t afford a second child, especially when child care expenses are considered. The couple moved to the Triangle region in North Carolina from a rural county in upstate New York where good-paying jobs are limited. Her parents are still in New York, so there is no opportunity for child care from grandma and grandpa. She said it took them every penny they made to afford the mortgage payment, other living essentials and child care costs. Did I have any advice on what they could do to make it financially possible to have another child?

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My first reaction was how flattered I was that she thought I could help. But my second reaction was, what can I say? Here are my suggestions.

First, is remote working possible? I wrote a book two years ago (Re-Launch) that explained how remote work could allow families to locate in areas where housing is cheaper and possibly could even allow parents to avoid child care expenses. Also, several recent studies show remote workers do not suffer a pay cut.

Next, moving away from the central areas of the Triangle (Raleigh, Cary, Durham and Chapel Hill) will result in savings on housing costs. This is a standard economics principle. People will pay more for residential sites located closer to jobs, shopping, entertainment, hospitals and schools. If a family moves away from these sites, housing prices per square foot fall, maybe enough that another child would be affordable.

Of course, living farther away from your job means longer commutes. Hence, a trade-off exists in a family’s choice of a residential location between less costly housing and longer commutes. Families must decide which side of the trade-off is best for them.

There are some potential collective solutions to consider. If a family moves to a more remote neighborhood where homes are less costly, maybe there are other young families in the same situation who could be potential partners in carpooling for their work commutes. Of course, this would require much coordination, as it is unlikely all the carpoolers would work at the same location. But it is an option worth thinking about.

There’s also a potential collective solution to child care. Think of a situation of five families, each with two working parents and two preschool children. If for each of the five workdays one of the 10 parents could be home to watch the 10 children, then child care expenses would be eliminated for the five families. Now I certainly know one parent watching 10 children is challenging, but, again, it may be something to consider.

Another fact to consider for a young family is the “net benefits” of both parents working. The net benefits are calculated as the workers’ annual salary minus the costs of working, which includes taxes, any special work clothing needed, the cost of a second vehicle if both parents commute, parking fees, possible restaurant tabs for lunches and the cost of child care. Working parents are often surprised how high these costs are. It may be that the net benefit is so small that if one parent stops working — at least when the children are young — and other expenses are trimmed, then child care could be avoided, and parents could expand their family.

Finally, an important consideration is making sure any family is using government programs that may help them. Specifically, I’m referring to SNAP benefits, the new name for food stamps, Medicaid and child benefits. Federal and state governments operate these programs, and they are available to families whose incomes fall below certain income limits.

It may be that after all my suggestions are considered, the young mother I met still can’t afford a second child. Then the question becomes, should more be done?

Many employers do recognize the bind many families are in, and so they provide on-site child care. Surveys show that over half of employers offer some kind of child care benefits at work, up from just over one-third in 2019. Some think governments at the state or federal levels should require on-site child care as a standard benefit.

Others recommend direct payments to families with young children on a regular basis. Families could use the payments to pay for child care, or they could use the money to help compensate for lost income if a parent stopped working and cared for the child. Annual estimates of the cost are over $100 billion annually, depending on the size of the monthly amount. Some proposals would reduce this cost by limiting the program to families below some income limit.

It is frequently said that “children are our future.” While obviously true, many families struggle with the expense of having children. I saw this struggle firsthand when I met the young mother at one of my presentations. How should we address this situation? This is probably one of the most important “you decides” I have asked.

Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds distinguished professor emeritus at North Carolina State University.