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Why Latter-day Saints (Or Anyone Else) Should Not Feel Bad about Having Kids on Government Assistance

When I was in graduate school with a young family my wife and I went on government assistance. We didn’t have a car so I had to fill our stroller up with groceries every third day. Of course, one particularly cold winter our stroller got a flat and we couldn’t fix it, so I had to go out in face-numbing West Philadelphia weather and run multiple shopping laps back and forth with a backpack so that I could make it back in time for class. Those were tough times (somewhat obviated when we had our rent paid one month by an anonymous donor who left the message “love one another”). Even though we were in a low income area of West Philadelphia, and a lot of people were on government assistance, we still got the awkward stares when the cashier tried to figure out our WIC checks while the line stacked up behind us. (Thankfully I still had some of the “ignore the awkward stares” calluses left over from my mission.)

For us the decision to have children was not really affected by whether or not they would require government assistance, but we ran into our fair share of people who were torn over the dilemma of whether to have children that they could not afford. In our particular circles, the people who had an issue with having kids on government assistance fell into two groups: the first were “bro” libertarian types (usually childless, unattached males), who honestly wondered why they should pay for other people’s children’s education. However, we also knew a lot of members who felt a Latter-day Saint hesitancy to accept government assistance because they felt pressure to completely provide for their own. 

The ethical and theological validity of this position aside, it does not make sense mathematically to avoid having children because of a concern about being a burden on society, since in the final balance sheet those who have children are subsidizing those who do not have children. The “bro” sitting their mom’s basement playing video games is the one freeriding off of others, not the single mother sorting through her WIC checks. 

The reason is intergenerational transfers of wealth. In the US we provide for old people by taxing younger workers. Those younger workers don’t just grow on trees, they come from the sleepless nights, stretch marks, anxieties, medical bills, and food budgets of people who choose to have children. The Godfather of “how do countries pay for old people” research is Ron Lee at Berkeley (one my academic grandfathers–the adviser to a member of my dissertation committee). He found that, even taking into account government assistance, the cost of public education, and the like, each average child adds $217,000 dollars to the national balance sheet. If we wanted to be true libertarians about it, each single parent or set of parents should be paid $8,100 per year per child they have over the age of 18 to make things even. So don’t feel guilty about your WIC cheese, there is no way that your child will eat enough of it to make them an overall cost on society. Paying for vaccines and formula is cheap, paying for old people ailments is what is expensive; the “bros” will have their medical treatments funded by the children whose education they complained about paying for, and Latter-day Saints (or anyone) should not let the noble sentiment of wanting to provide for their own get in the way of their desires for children. 

This post might seem a bit orthogonal to Latter-day Saint theme of Times and Seasons, but I’ve seen this attitude enough in the Latter-day Saint community, and often with a Latter-day Saint spin, that I thought it would be worth addressing. The “have children” Latter-day Saint cultural imperative should trump the “be able to provide for your own” Latter-day Saint cultural imperative. Of course there are a lot of other variables in the “how many kids to have” equation, but that particular concern does not make sense theologically (in my opinion) or mathematically (as a statement of fact).


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