Loss of community places a heavy burden on young families

As any parent with young children will know, child care isn’t cheap. Writing on the subject for Vox, Lyman Stone looks at America’s child care crisis:

“…since 1991, average child care costs have risen by 180 percent, as general consumer prices have risen just 80 percent. This phenomenon is known as ‘Baumol’s cost disease’, after the late economist William Baumol. Basically, because US labor productivity and earnings have been rising sharply in some sectors, like tech, they bid up the price of those sectors where there has been very little innovation — like child care.”

Until we get robot nannies, it would seem that child care costs will keep racing ahead of inflation.

However, economics isn’t the only way of viewing this issue. For instance, Stone provides a fascinating demographic perspective:

“We can track the number of adults with no kids under age 5 compared with the number of adults who do have a small child all the way back to 1850.

“There used to be three (or even fewer!) adults with no child under 5 for every adult who did have a child under that age. But today, we have nearly 10 people with no little kids for every person who does. The upshot of that statistic ought to be that parents shouldn’t be feeling isolated or overwhelmed by child care! There’s lots of help nearby.”

To put it another way, “there are more potential babysitters today than at any time in recorded history”.

Stone calculates that if just one-third of people without young children volunteered to babysit just once a month, then parents with young children could have one night off a week. That’s obviously not a complete solution to the child care crisis, but it would make parenthood that little bit easier.

‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is reputed to be an old African proverb. But while communal child care is a strong feature of many traditional societies, it is disappearing from contemporary western societies. Stone blames changing cultural norms:

“Retirees may move to be near their grandkids, or they may move to Florida. They’re mostly doing the latter (in fairness, maybe partly so the grandkids will visit them in a nice touristic location). Parents may make an effort to live near extended family, but modern employment arrangements don’t make that easy. Voluntary intergenerational living is increasingly rare.”

For obvious reasons, parents need to trust the people that look after their children. The extended family helps to facilitate that, of course, and so does neighbourliness. From my own (British) childhood, I remember non-relatives being referred to as ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ – an indication that they too should be regarded, and trusted, as family.

Of course, in the long-established, low-turnover communities of not so long ago, you lived close to your relatives anyway. And even if unrelated to you, your neighbours would be part of another local family, with a name and reputation to maintain. Before the welfare state, these networks were also the social security system – reinforcing and clarifying relationships through tests of reciprocity.

A lot of that has gone now – replaced by the state, sacrificed in pursuit of economic opportunity or otherwise left behind in our hyper-mobile, increasingly individualised society. There’s freedom in that, of course, but also loss.

The shrinking size of the average family, including the growing number of people who never have children at all, means that our family trees don’t join up as densely as they used to – thus further weakening our social infrastructure.

Recommended reading

Will we die from being kinless?

By Peter Franklin

Obviously, today’s children – and their parents – benefit from the playgroups, kindergartens, schools, healthcare facilities, babysitting agencies and online networks that didn’t exist for earlier generations.

Let’s hope that makes up for the loss of the village.