Why millennial parents have it hardest
Being a new parent hasn't gotten easier in America. It's gotten worse.
In the endless cycle of internet think pieces about what sort of generation millennials are — most entitled or most self-absorbed? — a constant bone of contention is economic position. Young people themselves generally argue that due to stagnating wages and massive student debt, millennials have it real bad, but others argue that income growth has trickled down to the middle class at least a bit.
One could parse income data all day, but there's one area where millennials are unambiguously worse off than any previous generation: having kids. Even for young people who have managed to land in the upper middle class, it's a tremendous strain — and it gets worse the further down the economic ladder you are.
The basic problem is that unlike ages past, both women and men are expected to work, but the United States — virtually alone among the world's nations — makes almost no accommodation for children between birth and entering school. We have no maternity grant, no paid leave, no child care benefit, no child allowance, and not even universal pre-K. We do have a smattering of tax benefits, but as usual these go mostly to the rich, and do not remotely provide enough to live on. For new parents these days, there is one real option: the Family Medical Leave Act, which mandates that some employers provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave.
Unpaid is the operative word. Because these days, everything about having a kid is expensive. The hospital bills are sizable (particularly if you have one of the cheap ObamaCare plans), and the usual package of baby stuff — car seat, crib, high chair, bottles, diapers, food, etc. — costs yet more. Then there's the constant bombardment of articles about how parents are Doing It Wrong (generally atrocious science journalism, but never mind), which usually imply more expensive purchases. Better get that breast pump, so the baby gets the maximum immune system boost. If not that, better at least get that organic formula, oh and the nice organic diapers, and the toys that don't have the latest brain-mutating plastic, and on and on.
All that is nothing compared to child care, though, the price of which has absolutely exploded over the past few decades. Research from the Economic Policy Institute shows that the cost of child care varies from $344 per month in the rural South to $1,472 per month in Washington, D.C. It's also yet another thing you don't want to cheap out on, as stories of babies being killed by neglect in day care are numerous and terrifying. Infant care is even more expensive — in 33 states and D.C., more than the cost of in-state college tuition. Try swinging that on minimum wage, on top of rent and food.
This is the double bind of millennial families: Parents must work to live, and pay for their child expenses — but child care is so expensive that it often barely even pays to go back to work. Even if you have a very high-paying job, unless it comes with paid leave (as many do not), you still need to attend work to actually get that paycheck. And that's setting aside parents' need to, you know, bond with their dang newborn, and mothers' need to heal after their bodies have been seriously torn up by childbirth.
It's not over even when the kid makes it to school age, as Rebecca Rosen points out in a brilliant piece. Since America generally allocates school funding through local property taxes, families are always pressured to buy into the most expensive neighborhood they can possibly afford, so as to ensure the best education for their kids. Middle and upper middle class people don't suffer like the poor, of course, but virtually everyone outside of the very rich struggles to make a basic family work.
In decades past, when child care and rent was cheaper, and the income distribution was a lot narrower, living on one income for a few months or years was a feasible choice even for families fairly far down in the income distribution. Maybe someday we'll catch up to where European countries were 50-80 years ago, and finally put through some paid parental leave — but until then, young American parents will continue to struggle with a violently anti-family economy.