Kids as Status Symbols

The rich not only have more money, they may also have more children.

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?

It has long been a demographic truism that richer means fewer, not more, kids. And as far as it goes, census data seem to bear this out. As the average incomes of Americans have increased, the smaller their families have become. Since the height of the baby boom in the 1950s, the number of children born to an American woman has dropped from an average of 3.76 to only 1.98 today. And this phenomenon is not confined to the United States. The average number of children born to women in Western Europe has fallen from 2.5 in 1960 to 1.6 today.

People have lots of reasons for choosing to have fewer children, including the expansion of opportunities for women in the workplace, but it is an undeniable fact that rearing children in the modern world is an expensive activity. Throughout most of history children were net assets–they toiled in the fields, mucked out the barn, and cared for their parents in old age. But modern parents don’t really expect much of a return from the resources they spend on their children. Sure, Johnny may mow the lawn and Jenny might run the dishwasher, but in general kids today do little to contribute directly to a family’s bottom line.

The U.S. Census Bureau confirms that women in households with the lowest average annual incomes–those under $10,000–have had the most children; 2.3 on average. By contrast, upper-middle-class households–those making more than $75,000–have an average of only 1.8 kids. One interpretation of these numbers is that poor parents still think that children are a reasonable investment. In a poor rural family, children still do chores on the farm. And before welfare reform, at least, an additional child usually meant an increase in a poor urban family’s benefits.

Meanwhile, for the upper-middle class, providing for progeny is expensive. Parents try to pay for private-school educations, soccer club and pool memberships, and French, piano, and dance lessons. Of course, these parents are spending this money in an attempt to assure the future success of their children. But even with an income of $75,000 per year, they can afford only so much for Skip and Buffy’s tutoring, so they limit their family size in order to bestow more on fewer kids.

But recently I have noticed that many of my wealthier acquaintances, people who live in tonier suburbs like Potomac, Md., or Darien, Conn., are bucking the trend toward smaller families. Many have three or four kids. Some intriguing, if sketchy, data suggest that at the highest levels of wealth and income, the trend is toward larger, not smaller, families.

For example, Mendelsohn Research–a company that supplies consumer research to advertisers, advertising agencies, and publishing companies–offers some suggestive data. Mendelsohn’s most recent annual survey shows that those households with children where the annual family income exceeds $250,000 are blessed with an average of 2.3 children currently at home. That is 0.5 kids more than the upper-middle-class average and the same number as the lowest census income category. And because the Mendelsohn data don’t include kids who have left home–while the census data do–the number of children born in these very wealthy families could be even higher.

One other interesting figure comes from the very tiptop of the wealth scale. The households that compose the Forbes 400 richest Americans average 2.88 children. That’s 1.08 kids more than the upper-middle class can afford.

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.

This is not to say that rich people don’t love their kids. Rather, kids today are not only little bundles of joy but also are perhaps the ultimate symbols of worldly success and status. Perhaps we are now seeing a new social phenomenon–trophy kids.