PORTLAND, Maine — The cost of raising children is growing faster than parents’ abilities to pay it, a trend that’s placing more Maine youths in poverty and potentially leaving the next generation at a disadvantage as it inherits the state.
“It just gets more expensive,” said Sarah Krajewski, a mother of three who lives in Bath. “The food is getting more expensive. The shoes get more expensive and the clothes get more expensive. Everything just gets more and more expensive. … We gave up cable and we dialed back on our Internet service. Sometimes I think, ‘Well, what else can we give up in order to give the kids what they need?’”
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the cost of raising a child in the middle class to the age of 18 has grown from an inflation-adjusted $207,859 in 1990 to $241,080 today.
Over that same stretch, average household incomes have barely budged. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the median household income, also adjusted for inflation, in 2012 was $51,017 — just $23 greater than 1990’s figure of $50,994 and actually less than the $51,681 so-called middle-class families made on average in 1989.
“When you adjust household income for the cost of inflation it hasn’t changed in 30 years,” said Charles Colgan of the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, one of the state’s best-known economists. “Households today have about the same incomes as they did in 1982 or 1983.”
The result is a greater percentage of a typical family’s income being eaten up by child-rearing expenses, and experts say that means parents have less — or no — flexibility to ensure nutritious diets or access to programs and activities that enrich children from a physical or intellectual perspective.
The ripple effect could also include parents working extra hours or additional jobs to cover costs, being less available as mentors and leaving children home alone more often or for longer stretches.
The problem of child-raising costs outpacing family finances is more pronounced in Maine. The median household income in the Pine Tree State in the most recent fiscal year was less than the nationwide figure at $49,158, and Maine household incomes are sinking faster — dropping by 4.59 percent over the past three years compared to the nationwide decline of 4.44 percent over that same period.
Maine households are drowning because of a number of factors, Colgan said, including a loss of in-state manufacturing or industrial jobs to international and out-of-state competition, leaving lower-paying alternatives. Some studies show that nearly 14 percent of Maine jobs are in the traditionally low-paying retail sector, greater than the national average of 11.6 percent.
“Even the working folks are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and they’re having to say, ‘How can I get ahead even a little bit?’” said Jane Conroy, who offers family finance programs for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 21 percent of Maine children are now living in poverty, the highest percentage in New England. Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts have among the fewest poor children in poverty in the country with 15 percent each.
Perhaps more significantly, Maine’s current figure is almost double what it was in 2001, when just 11 percent of the state’s children were living in poverty.
Colgan said parents for years were able to brace against rising child care costs by sending a second parent into the workforce and pooling scant resources, a break from past decades when having one stay-at-home parent — usually the mother — was considered the norm.
Now both parents in most families are already working and there’s nobody else to send off to work to bring in more revenue, he said.
“One of the ways in which people for several decades, from the ’60s into the ’90s, adjusted for the rise of the costs of things — but not a corresponding increase in individual incomes — was by getting married,” Colgan said. “As the number of women entering into the workforce increased, they increased household incomes. That’s now plateaued.”
Meanwhile, child-rearing expenditures have continued to climb and are, on average, greater in the Northeast than anywhere else in America — a full $50,000 per child more than in the Southeast over 18 years, according to BabyCenter, a pregnancy and parenting website.
In addition to day care, Americans’ ever-ballooning health care costs and the everyday expenses driven up by oil prices — heating, transportation and food — Northeast parents must clothe and equip their children for four very different seasons, among other considerations.
That’s not all. Societal and governmental changes have also conspired to make parenting more expensive, Conroy said.
“Back in our day, we weren’t required to have car seats,” she said. “That’s a big investment. Back in our day, our neighbors gave us hand-me-downs. Now you go to a consignment shop and spend a little money. That all adds up.”
And none of the above calculations includes college, which conservatively pushes the cost of raising a child past $350,000 and, as Conroy said, “blows the whole equation up.”
“It does scare me somewhat thinking about college,” said Carrie Lorfano, a Gorham mother who publishes the bimonthly publication Parent & Family. “My son is eight and those numbers are just too enormous for me contemplate. I don’t know if I’ll have my own college loan paid off by the time my son gets to college.”
As parents spend more and more of their incomes on making ends meet, there is less available for things that might put their children at a competitive advantage, such as extracurricular activities or private classes.
Parents are having to make difficult decisions, said Lorfano,
“You can raise your children without doing anything besides sending them to school — no extra-curricular activities, no treats, no special trips. The cost of having kids play sports is astronomical,” said Lorfano, who said she’s recently spent $60 for a softball program and $110 for swimming lessons, among other things.
“Unless you’re really creative, I just don’t think many [low-cost] opportunities are out there. I think people do have to choose,” she continued. “I don’t know how we’re making it all work — whether people are going without other things or are going into greater debt.”
Krajewski, who has three young sons, said hospital bills accrued from a recent — and, from a health perspective, successful — bout with cancer accelerated her return to the workplace after years as a stay-at-home mother. She said her medical crisis put a spotlight on how little financial wiggle room her family had left to pay for unplanned expenses thanks to ever-rising child-rearing costs.
Krajewski said she and her husband are able to let their children take part in sometimes expensive extracurricular activities, but they make other concessions in order to provide the budget space. She said they welcome hand-me-downs from friends and buy generic brands at the grocery store, when possible, in addition to cutting cable TV and Internet service.
“The price of gas has gone up considerably, the price of heating oil has gone up considerably,” she said. “But food is the biggest one for me. That just blows my mind.”
In more extreme cases, the costs of survival cannibalize even what might otherwise be considered essentials, such as nutritious food, warm clothing or shelter. Public school systems and other organizations are trying to fill the gap, but with limited success.
“You just kind of take a snapshot of what’s happening in schools now that wasn’t happening 10 or 15 years ago,” Conroy said. “You’re now having school supply drives. More schools are serving breakfasts.”
Ethan Strimling is the executive director of LearningWorks, a Portland nonprofit that provides supplemental academic programs for at-risk youths. He’s also the Democratic half of the Agree to Disagree blogging duo hosted by the BDN.
“We have kids who come into the classroom [who say] they can’t study well, and we say, ‘What’s going on?’ They say, ‘We’re hungry.’ So we feed them breakfast. Then they can start saying, ‘OK, I’m not hungry anymore, and I can start thinking about math,’” Strimling said. “If all your mental energy is taken trying just to feed yourself, you can’t have conversations … about how to live a more stable life.”
William Shuttleworth has been a school administrator in Maine for nearly four decades and is currently a superintendent of schools in Jonesport.
While working in the Bath-area Regional School Unit 1 three years ago, Shuttleworth saw an increase in the number of children going to empty homes after school as parents worked longer hours or second jobs. He launched what was then called the Help-a-Kid Fund and started collecting donations to cover those students’ costs for getting transportation to and participating in after-school activities.
But he said that while many parents struggled to provide for their children because of economic factors, many others simply misspent money.
“At the end of the day, I only have so much money for sneakers and food. How much should I really be spending on my kid’s cellphone?” Shuttleworth posed. “I do find parents are unable to set those parameters and limits, and kids today are raised with an almost narcissistic sense of entitlement. They want everything out there and their parents can’t say no.
“Advertising is driving the cost of raising a kid into delirium,” he continued. “I don’t think it has to be as bad as people are making it. It’s all about controlling finite dollars. Yes, the cost of living has gone up. We’re just not doing a good job managing the finite resources we have for kids.”