One and Done

America’s One-Child Policy

Millions of working-class families don’t have a choice—they simply can't afford another kid.

Greg Samborski/Getty

Turns out you don’t necessarily have to go to China to find a one-child policy.

Right here in the U.S., many working-class women are being forced to give up their larger domestic ambitions due to the crippling costs associated with raising a family with more than one child.

“In so many ways, I'd love to give my daughter a sibling,” says Kristin Chew, 39, who lives with her husband and 2-year-old daughter Gracie in a third-floor walkup in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn. But, Chew says, the costs are too prohibitive. “It just feels impossible and overwhelming in the city. And our child-care costs just went up, so it's a struggle to live within our budget,” she explains.

Census data shows families like Chew’s are on the rise. Forty years ago, a third of American families with kids had just one child. Today, 43 percent do. That adds up to some 16 million one-child families in the U.S., or one of every five homes. Some 18 percent of married women have only one child by the end of their childbearing years, double what it was 30 years ago.

The trend has hardly gone unnoticed, but the economic factor is often ignored in favor of sentimental arguments. Spurred by Lauren Sandler’s book One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One, mommy newsfeeds have been inundated with essays about the pleasures of rearing so-called onlies. Children without siblings to share with, Sandler tells us, are not as lonely, selfish, or spoiled as we were once told. “One isn’t always the loneliest number,” Courtney E. Martin wrote for CNN. “Why One Child Is Enough for Me—and Might Be for You” was the title of Sandler’s June essay in Slate.

But while that’s good news for the moms and dads who are proudly “one and done”—a faddish rallying cry for happy parents of single children—it hardly helps those who actually want more. In fact, recent data from the General Social Survey, one of the country’s longest-running sociological surveys, show that only 3 percent of Americans think of one child as the ideal number for a family.

“My husband and I have run the numbers front, back and sideways, and we come to the same conclusion each time: we simply can't afford another,” says Jen Wright, 34, who is raising her 4-year-old daughter, Madelyn, in Imperial, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Although her work at a local credit union and her husband’s job as an ambulance mechanic bring enough to get by without government assistance, one more baby doesn’t fit into the equation.

“Not even close,” she says. “I look at pictures of when [Madelyn] was 2 and I think, ‘I’m never going to have that again.’ But now I can put money away for her college so..." Wright trails off.

To be sure, explanations for declining family sizes are complicated. The end of the 1960s Baby Boom accounts for some of it, as does “a delay of child-bearing for educational and career opportunities,” says Jamie Lewis Thomas, a statistician at the U.S. Census Bureau.

But the increasingly prohibitive cost of parenting can’t be ignored, and the middle class is getting particularly squeezed.

The USDA estimates middle-income parents can expect to spend over $15,000 a year to raise a single child. Add another and the bill soars to $26,000. Keep in mind, though: this number takes into account parents who report “some child care,” including after-school programs or babysitters, so the figure for working parents with kids in full-time daycare would be much higher. Even the study’s author, Mark Lino, tells me, “All my friends with kids say this [estimate] is way too low.”

Apart from housing, child care is indeed the priciest item on the baby receipt. In 35 states and Washington, D.C., it’s cheaper to send your kid to an in-state university than it is to put an infant in daycare, according to Child Care Aware of America (CCAA), an advocacy group that tracks daycare costs. The organization pegs the average annual cost of full-time infant child care in the thousands—from a low of $4,600 in Mississippi to almost $15,000 in Massachusetts. And forget about having a second—child care for two children adds up to more than the annual median rent in every single state.

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And for middle-class families, the burden of this cost falls solely on the parent. About $10 billion in federal money goes into a funding stream to states that then assist low-income families with child care. But only one out of every six eligible children is getting the subsidies; according to the Government Accountability Office, many states lack the resources to serve all eligible families and some who would receive benefits just don’t apply. Not a single program offers relief for middle-income earners.

That’s unfair for working parents above the poverty line who are also suffering from the “unsustainable” costs, says Michelle Noth McCready, senior state-and-local-policy adviser for CCAA. “This is not just a low-income issue. It’s a middle-class issue.” she says. “If you aren't a wealthy person, this is definitely going to affect you.”

A closer look at the data shows just how much of a middle-class issue it is. The two groups that are still having lots of babies according to Census data? The very rich and the very poor. Americans in the lowest income quintile are having the most children, followed by earners in the top 5 percent.

Parents who fall into the middle have to hustle to find affordable care for their children, of which the quality can suffer. Policymakers, McCready argues, don't relate to that struggle. “They think, ‘Why don't you just stay home or find a friend?’” she says. “They don't understand the challenge for working women and families."

Some families are forced to either spend less time with families or work more hours to supplement the cost difference. For others, especially those with two children, it makes more economical sense to drop out of the workforce entirely and join the stay-at-home ranks—now 5 million strong, or a quarter of married women.

McCready, herself a parent to a 4-year-old, can relate to the sacrifice a mother would have to make to add a second: "I can't imagine having another child. What is it worth? Do I stay home and give up everything I’ve ever worked for?”

Costs associated with child care are known to affect a woman’s choice to end a pregnancy. The Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit focusing on reproductive health and abortion, released a study in 2004 outlining the reasons women have abortions; four in 10 said they had finished childbearing—a 10 percentage point increase from 1987. About three quarters said they could not afford to have the baby, with 28 percent offering the inability to afford child care specifically as a reason for terminating a pregnancy.

There may be a silver lining in three federal policies currently under consideration: the reauthorization to the Child Care and Development Block Grant and a proposed rule from Health and Human Services that would both improve the quality of child care and President Obama’s recently unveiled early-learning agenda. Obama’s proposal aims to make child care and education more affordable and available for kids from birth to age 5, and encourages states to expand services to middle-class parents.

These moves are positive, but if past is prologue, any real change could take years to enact. The only measure that currently supports all working families is the Family Medical Leave Act, signed into law in 1993 by President Bill Clinton after a decade-long fight.

These hard-won incremental steps prompt the question: at a time when women have become the primary breadwinners in this country, why not just institute sensible policy that includes affordable child care and universal preschool—like most of the rest of the industrialized world enjoys?

Furthermore, research suggests the increased availability of quality child care has a positive effect on fertility. Naturally, mitigating the financial burden of raising children would make it easier to decide to have more of them.

“It makes me very sad actually.” Wright says. “I’d love to have more kids. I just wish the decision was easier. I wish there were more options."