One of the things that always makes these reports sound so large is that they aggregate spending over a long period of time. Just dividing the number by 17 does a lot of the work. The median US household income is $51k. If you say that a median family size is two adults and two kids, and you just divide that $51k by four, you get a per-person spend of $12.7k, which is not much shy of the $14.4k number suggested by the "cost of raising a child" study. If you think of raising a child as a hobby, it's an expensive hobby. If it's simply a portion of the amount you spend on your household which is related to spending on kids, it's really not.
However, at these times, people always stop to ponder questions of "how much more will it cost me if we have kids". Or one more kid. Megan McArdle had some thoughts on the report which got me thinking, as the parent of a large family:
The last 50 years have seen a massive shift away from the basic expenses of keeping your kid alive and toward competitive expenses. Now, those education expenses are a bit misleading -- as the report points out, many families basically have no expenditures in that category. Still, it’s remarkable how the averages have shifted. And that reflects a great difference in how we view the basic task of launching a child into the world. It’s no longer enough to make sure they’re fed and clothed; you also have to make sure they can beat the other kids in the education race.This strikes me every time I have to go clothes shopping for the children. I remember a Easter Vigil a while back when I was standing in the back of church with our two youngest at the time, and then-four-year-old Jack was talking with a little girl from a family we knew.
If you’ve ever watched "19 Kids and Counting" and wondered how the Duggars (and families like them) do it, the answer is: They don’t do much beyond the basics. They spend a huge amount, more than $2,000 a month, on food. But before they became television personalities, the Duggars were living in a three-bedroom house with 14 kids. They buy all their clothes at thrift shops. They vacation in an RV. They home-school, and no one’s on a sports travel team or in dance classes. If they buy toys, it’s at a secondhand store. If average-size families did this, no one would be complaining about how expensive it is to have kids.
"That's a very nice blazer you're wearing," she said. "Where did you get it?"
"It's from Once Upon A Child," said Jack.
"Oh. Those are very nice shoes you're wearing."
"They're from Once Upon A Child," said Jack.
"I don't think I know that clothing store," the girl said, with the mature solemnity of a six year old. "But it must be very nice."
Well, it is very nice. It's the second hand kids clothing store we frequent, and it allows me to get used to spending $2-4 per item on kids clothes. I'll walk away with a bag full of barely used clothes from nice brands for far less than I would pay for much more cheaply made new stuff at Target or Walmart. We also get free hand-me-downs from all the two child families on the street. So between all these the kids are constantly awash in clothes, and nice clothes at that. It's MrsDarwin and I that have small wardrobes and get frustrated by how much everything costs. (Those with massive patience seem to find nice used adult clothing, but it always seems to me that the pickings are incredibly slim on anything other that the kind of clothes I might wear while doing yard work. With that latter exception, I buy all my clothes new.)
One of the advantages of the upper middle class culture of spending a lot on a small number of children is that it creates more cast offs than the second hand industry can well handle. I remember this article going around a while back with comments like "no one wants your used clothes".
The Quincy Street Salvation Army may be on a quiet out-of-the-way street, but it is the main distribution center serving eight Salvation Army locations in Brooklyn and Queens. It processes an average of five tons of outcast clothing every single day of the year, and much more during the holiday season when donations spike. From that astonishing mass, the sorters choose exactly 11,200 garments a day to be divided up equally between the eight thrift stores they serve. I asked Maui if they’ve ever hit a dry spell, where the donations dipped too low to fully restock each stores with their share of the 11,200 items. He laughed, “We never run out of clothes. There are always enough clothes.”It would appeal to people's sense of neatness for there to be only exactly the right amount of used clothing. People buy no more than they need, wear things, pass them on, and there's only just as much as people want to buy used. But the massive excess is hugely beneficial for those of us trying to get by on less than the average when raising children. The excess is what allows us to find so much good among the leavings.
Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Charities long ago passed the point of being able to sell all of our wearable unwanted clothes. According to John Paben, co-owner of used-clothing processer Mid- West Textile, “They never could.”
There are thousands of secondhand textile processors in the United States today, mostly small family businesses, many of them several generations old. I visited Trans- Americas Trading Co., a third- generation textile recycler in Clifton, N.J., which employs 85 people and processes close to 17 million pounds of used clothing a year. Inside Trans-Americas, there is a wall of cubed-up clothing five bales tall and more than 20 bales long. “This is literally several hundred thousand pounds of textile waste, and we bring in two trailer loads of this much every day,” Trans-Americas president Eric Stubin told me. The volume they process has gone up over the years alongside our consumption of clothing.
Without textile recyclers, charities would be totally beleaguered and forced to throw away everything that couldn’t be sold. Charities might even have to turn us away. The only benefit to this doomsday scenario is that our clothes would pile up in our house or in landfills, finally forcing us to face down just how much clothing waste we create.
Most of our donated clothing does not end up in vintage shops, as car-seat stuffing, or as an industrial wiping rag. It is sold overseas. After the prized vintage is plucked out and the outcasts are sent to the fiber and wiping rag companies, the remaining clothing is sorted, shrink-wrapped, tied up, baled, and sold to used-clothing vendors around the world. The secondhand clothing industry has been export-oriented almost since the introduction of mass-produced garments. And by one estimate, used clothing is now the United States’ number one export by volume, with the overwhelming majority sent to ports in sub-Saharan Africa. Tanzanians and Kenyans call used clothing mitumba, which means “bales,” as it comes off the cargo ships in the shrink-wrapped cubes like the ones I saw at Trans-Americas and Salvation Army. The bales are cut open in front of an eager clientele and buyers, who pick through it for higher-value finds.