Status kids for the rich

I posted this on Britannica Blog last week and promised to post it here. Voila:

The rich get richer and the poor get pregnant, they used to say. Not so, reports NPR: There’s a baby boom among the wealthy.

. . . in the past 10 years, the number of high-end earners who are having three or more kids has shot up nearly 30 percent.

Some say the trend is driven by a generation of over-achieving career women who have quit work and transferred all of their competitive energy to baby making.

They call it “competitive birthing.”

On Reason Magazine’s Hit & Run, Ronald Bailey brags that he was writing about trophy kids 10 years ago when the wealthy already were more prolific.

So, you’ve got the beach house compound on Nantucket, the 63-foot Hinckley sailboat, the corporate jet, the nanny, and the gardener; and your stay-at-home spouse with the advanced academic degree heads up the local United Way campaign. What other acquisition might serve your high economic and social status? How about having some more kids?

Once seen as free farm labor, modern children are a costly luxury for the middle class, requiring child care, dance lessons, tutoring, summer camp, enriching travel and private college. But once income climbs above $250,000 a year, family size increases, Bailey found.

These added kids provide many opportunities for status signaling. Wealthy parents can talk endlessly at the country club about the costs of Maine summer camps, high-school semesters abroad, little Andrew’s sailing trophies, and what hunt Sarah rides with regularly. And of course, there are schools and universities. Did they prep at St. Albans or Choate? How well are they doing at Harvard, Yale, or Middlebury? Being able to provide lavishly for a large number of children shows that you’ve really got it made.

In tougher times, the well-to-do raised more children to adulthood than the poor. Economic historian Gregory Clark theorizes that England developed the social capital needed for the Industrial Revolution because most people were descended from successful families. From the New York Times:

“The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” (Clark) concluded.

As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.

Imagine our society dominated by the descendants of today’s rich. Bill Gates, OK. Paris Hilton, please no.

I was born in the middle of the Baby Boom, when you didn’t have to be rich to afford lots of kids. I remember coming home from high school to tout Zero Population Growth.

“We have four children,” my mother said.

“Yes, but I’m the second,” I said.

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  1. From NPR:

    But in the past 10 years, the number of high-end earners who are having three or more kids has shot up nearly 30 percent.

    What percentage of the population does this group consist of? What percentage of the population in their income bracket do “competitive birth” families consist of? If this group is 1,000 strong nationally then a 30% increase wouldn’t be noticeable let alone qualify as an important social phenomenon.

    With regard to historian Gregory Clark’s ideas about the foundation of the Industrial Revolution, Dr. Clark admits to one puzzling inconsistency: “the Samurai in Japan and the Qing dynasty in China, were surprisingly unfertile”.

    Unless Dr. Clark can come up with some reason to think the effect of downward social mobility was suppressed in China and Japan, what’s the reason it didn’t show up everywhere else there was any sort of income disparity? Shouldn’t there have been heaps of Industrial Revolutions? I think it’s pretty obvious that some other factors were pivotal, not the greater infant survival rate of the wealthy.

    Dr. Clark is also dizzyingly wrong about Malthus. Malthus repudiated his earlier notions about population growth and agricultural output since, within his lifetime, there was a considerable increase in population that went hand-in-hand with with a drop in food prices and an increase in variety. Ever since, Malthusians have, uniformly, been fortune tellers rather then historians since the history of Malthusian resource collapses is empty. It’s always just around the next corner and always has been.

  2. For the rich anything can become a status symbol. They aren’t talking about the number of kids in quite the same way they about their golf clubs and cars but rather what they spend on the kids they have. In contrast, Ricki Martin has now publically announced his intention to adopt a child from each continent and join the ranks of Madonna and Jolie baby collectors.

  3. As most rich people have made their own money, doesn’t this just reflect the increased chance that a wealthy family might be something other than WASPs? It could also reflect the feeling that it’s o.k. to allow family wealth to dissipate. That is, that it’s better to have 4 solidly productive citizens in the family, than 2 (or fewer) layabouts.

    That being said, though, I don’t know that this is anything other than a marginal phenomenon. Darien, CT, and certain small slivers of NYC aren’t the whole story, by any means. It reminds me strongly of a story in the London Times a few weeks back. (

    It means it’s August in the media world.


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