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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: What cost are we paying for the generation, and what are we costing them?

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Putting a price tag on human life is a pretty dodgy practice at best, but Gwenyar Rohler explores what it is in the U.S.

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Putting a price tag on human life is a pretty dodgy practice at best. One of things I find so odd about the American experience is both birth and death are incredibly expensive here. Though I personally have no desire to add to the population of the planet, I am surrounded by people who are interested in making the world a more crowded place. Recently, I got to be one of three co-hostesses of a baby shower for expectant first-time parents. It was not my first go-round with baby showering, but I think it was my most insightful.

BIRTH STORY: Midwives like Ina May Gaskin, CPM, (above) founder of The Farm Midwifery Center in Tennessee.  Photo: ‘Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin & The Farm Midwives,’ by Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore. Courtesy photo

BIRTH STORY: Midwives like Ina May Gaskin, CPM, (above) founder of The Farm Midwifery Center in Tennessee. Photo: ‘Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin & The Farm Midwives,’ by Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore.

The majority of guests were experienced parents (as opposed to well-meaning young friends—as many of my earlier shower experiences) and grandparents.  It was not about giving toys, scrapbook materials or decorative items. For all the fun of the evening, the gifts were focused on serious, useful items. Swadlers, hooded towels, onesies, butt cream, bibs, receiving blankets, bath materials, and crib sheets dominated the gifts. Looking at the gift table, I was struck by a couple of thoughts:

First, it really is the voice of experience trying to help set up the new baby and parents for success.
Second, the cost of stocking a nursery must be monumental—though defraying it with gifts from friends—but absolutely essential.

Just for a point of comparison, I am estimating to spend $1,200 to $1,400 on bed linens, curtains and bath accoutrements per room for the bed and breakfast I am trying to open. I expect to get two to three years of wear from sheets and towels at the B&B. But with a baby? In three years they’ve gone through a bassinet, crib and are on to a big-girl/boy bed! The same for clothes: Between birth and 3 years old, the changes in development of a child are incredible—from almost immobile to climbing and running! It must be why, when two mommies are gathered together, offers of hand-me-down clothes and linens are prevalent.

But how much money are we really talking here to rear a child?

The USDA has an online calculator to give folks an idea of what annual expenditures for child-rearing would be. Out of curiosity, I filled in the required fields, and imagined I have a newborn, living with my partner in a Southern city of the U.S. with an annual household income of less than $59,200. It came back with below information:

Expected annual expenses for housing, $3,670; food, $1,727; transportation, $1,600; clothing, $1,003; healthcare, $978; childcare, $2,819; and miscellaneous, $495 for a grand total of $12,294, which is $6 under the expected national average.

Thank the gods for small favors.

Now, it does not appear to take into account a lot of upfront expenses like car seats and new furniture (high chairs, changing tables, etc.). Nor, frankly, does $2,819 sound like a realistic number for either daycare or education. (It breaks down to just under $59 a week.) Certainly, that is not taking into account the rising costs of higher education and hope of a college education—nor afterschool care or any additional lessons, like dance or music, let alone the cost of childcare during summers., which is owned by Johnson and Johnson, has a one-time cost calculator for baby’s first year that estimates $4,265 for items like strollers, diaper pail, child-proofing supplies, infant bath tub, tub for older baby, crib mattress, carrier, etc. They also advise daycare centers run from $700 to $1,200 a month. That seems a little closer to the numbers I hear from parents.
Jock would point out how none of that is taking into account the Border Collie he considers an absolute essential in rearing children. His argument goes something along the lines of Nana Darling from “Peter Pan,” but in a more focused sort of way:

“They regard kids as their sheep to heard and care for,” he tells people. “They will round up the kids and move them to wherever you point.”

But back to the topic at hand…

These are costs after the new little human has actually appeared in the world. Leading up to their arrival is stunningly expensive. The New York Times reported in 2012 the average vaginal birth in America costs $9,775, and the average C-section costs $15,041. Prenatal care has a huge spread in the U.S. from women who receive absolutely no prenatal care at all because they couldn’t afford it or do not have access to it, to thousands of dollars a month in visits, tests and imaging. The more high-risk the pregnancy, the more oversight and care needed. Unfortunately, it’s not always provided or available. Home births using a midwife vary in price but reports seem to average out between $1,500 to $3,000 as an expected range of cost for the delivery. That is significantly less than a hospital birth, and for many people, is a choice made not so much motivated by cost but from a deep philosophical sense about the birth process, religious reasons, use of drugs, or the mother’s voice in the process.

Home birthing has been steadily regaining popularity in the United States since Ina May Gaskin published “Spiritual Midwifery” in 1975. One of the founders of The Farm at Summertown, Tennessee, Gaskin became a leader of the home-birth movement in America in the second half of the 20th century.

All of those figures assume everyone is perfectly healthy. None of the figures take into account additional struggles and expenses of not having a healthy baby or mother. Right now, we are in the process of removing protections for people seeking insurance who have pre-existing medical conditions. Mind you, this is in a climate when being a woman is already considered a medical condition and pregnancy to be a punishable offense.

We can’t seriously discuss birth control, nor do we seem to want to pay for quality prenatal care or early childhood medical care, either. Maybe that is a conversation we really need to have in a more frank and open manner. How do we start off the next generation for success from the time of conception, forward? Yes, support and guidance of family and friends is remarkable and wonderful, but access to healthcare shouldn’t be an obstacle to overcome in 21st-century America.

The outpouring of generosity continuing to drive the human spirit is pretty amazing. Few things bring it to the fore as quickly or as strongly as the needs of babies and children. Thank heavens others shoulder the burden; I, for one, am quite grateful to enjoy my role as an honorary aunt and observe from afar. But that does not exonerate me from worrying about what sort of world we are leaving for the next generation. Among the many hopes for them include a world where when they have children, quality healthcare will be a right for everyone, not a privilege for some.

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