The high cost of day care and demographics

When I moved half-way across the country to take a new job, I had no local support system for my 2-year-old. Putting him in a full-time day care was the plan. I wanted a day care center with a good reputation that is located near work and home. My story, like so many others, includes phone calls and long wait lists. At first, it was hard to understand how I could be willing to pay for a service and it could just not exist.

Opening a large daycare center is risky. Who wants to take that risk? I joked that I’d quit my professor gig and start a daycare in response to the huge demand. Of course, I did not. Fortunately, I don’t live in one of the American counties that lost population over the past ten years.

The WSJ on demographics describes this situation in a shrinking county:

In Lincoln County, Kan., pop. 2,986, about 40 miles west of Salina, Kan., economic development director Kelly Gourley set out to build the county’s first day-care center not run out of someone’s home. A child-care shortage was making it difficult to work and raise children, she saw. The town’s handful of in-home daycares were the only options, and they tended to come and go.

Ms. Gourley estimated it could cost as much as a half-million dollars to build the facility, and she didn’t think it could weather fluctuations in demand. “In a rural community, you lose one kid and you might be in the red all the sudden,” she said. She shelved the plan and instead is working to increase the supply of in-home caretakers.

Allison Johnson, a 32-year-old nursing home speech pathologist, grew up in Lincoln County and hoped one day to have three children. She no longer thinks that is feasible after she had to wait a year to get an in-home daycare spot when her first child was born. Now she and her husband, who owns a residential-construction business, are trying to figure out how they would juggle having a second child.

Her father, a farmer, watches her son, now 2, when her in-home daycare provider isn’t available. But he and her brother are in their busy season, and “they’re not going to be able to do anything but throw him in the tractor.”

There are attractive economies of scale for day-care centers. This economic fact is part of the reason that young people are leaving rural areas, which in turn makes it harder for rural areas to support services for young families.

There has always been a huge amount of value created at home within families that is not fully captured by GDP. As more childcare is moving to the formal market, we are starting to see just how valuable those services are that used to be provided in the family.

Whatever your views on the matter, it’s not surprising that politicians are talking about subsidized day care.

Allowing for flexibility through policy moves like vouchers and de-regulating in-home daycares is important. Some communities can’t support a day-care center facility, like the one in this article. I think the if you build it they will come philosophy, if applied too widely, would be hugely expensive and not efficient. On the other hand, there could be situations in which more day care would be provided if the local government would take on some of the risk currently faced by entrepreneurs.

Markets in Everything for Christmas Decorating

Last year I blogged about a service to create your kid’s school Valentine’s cards.

Now, the temperature in Alabama has dropped to a chilly 71 degrees and the pumpkins are out. It’s time for parents to start worrying about who is going to create holiday magic at home.

You can pay someone to do this. An enterprising local has already posted this in a neighborhood group.

Creating holiday magic is a wonderful thing. There are huge positive externalities to even a simple string of lights around your front door. I love it. Creating the magic is also a lot of work. As someone who is forever swamped at work and has already booked three weekend work trips for Fall 2021, my willingness to pay for this service is positive. (I can’t afford this particular service, nor do I need my Christmas tree to look like the one in her picture.)

The rich have always had extra hands to manage their estates. I have a feeling that the percent of households for which this might be a paid service is expanding. There are women in the comments asking this crew to come over.

Covid, Cars, China, Crypto, Corruption

We generally do long “effort posts” on specific topics here, but today I’m mixing things up with 5 quick updates.

  1. Covid My daughter got sent home with a cough Tuesday, which meant I cancelled classes Wednesday to hang out with her until we get a Covid-negative PCR. Last Thursday my son’s public school was closed for Yom Kippur, and I got so focused on hanging out with him I forgot to post here.
  2. Cars My wife bought a new used car last week. We’ve covered here how car prices have jumped up while inventories fell this summer, and the latest numbers show that used car prices are now falling slightly from very high levels while new car prices continue to rise. While actually buying a car, the low inventories stood out even more than the high prices. Several times we saw a promising car online, only to call or visit the dealer and find out it had sold the day before. The new Nissan Leaf sounds like an excellent value at its sticker price, but none were available in Rhode Island, and no blue ones anywhere in New England.
  3. China Scott covered the collapsing Chinese real estate market on Tuesday. I’ll just pass along the takes I’ve seen from Western economists and China-watchers Michael Pettis and Christopher Balding, which is that this is a big deal that will slow Chinese growth for years but is unlikely to precipitate a 2007-style financial crisis. I find Balding’s argument that financial contagion will be limited to be convincing partly because of his actual arguments about quasi-bailouts, and partly because he almost always argues that “things in China are worse than you think”, so if he says “Evergrande isn’t Lehman Brothers” I listen.
  4. Crypto Tuesday I met the co-founder of a new crypto-based prediction market, Melange, which sounds promising. The prediction market space is growing rapidly with PolyMarket and Kalshi joining the older PredictIt.
  5. Corruption Last week the World Bank announced it is discontinuing the Doing Business report/ranking due to apparent corruption; top Bank officials in the middle of raising money from countries including China pushed to raise the rankings of those countries beyond what the data justified. I hope another organization steps up do continue the good parts of the Doing Business report in a more trustworthy way.

Video Games: Emily Oster, Are the kids alright?

On Monday, China announced that kids under 18 will be limited to only 3 hours per week of online gaming. Those hours are scheduled for the evenings of Fri-Sun with a 9pm cut off. Go to bed, young man!

Last month I reviewed Emily Oster’s new book The Family Firm. In light of China’s ruling over how kids spend their free time, I’ll explain her view of video games.

Interestingly, she does not have a chapter called ‘Video Games: Do we need the CCP to intervene?’ She has one chapter near the end called Entertainment that includes video games and screen time. She writes at the beginning of the chapter that, “Screen time strikes fear in the heart of many a parent.” Most parents, at least among her audience, have their own smart phone and at least one TV in the house. It is such a relief, honestly, to get the kids to sit down and stop making trouble in the 3-D world. In What Women Want I wrote about a wealthy celebrity mom who has a nanny and a cook. She spends quality time with her kids, when she wants to. Most of us can’t afford a weekend nanny, but we might leave our kids with technology when we need a break. (I believe, with no data to back this up, that childhood mortality is down partly due to screens keeping kids off of cliff ledges and out of abandoned mines.)  Then, at the end of the day, we worry that they have spent too much time on screens.

Oster writes, “Screens change your brain, say the headlines. (Spoiler alert: Everything changes your brain.)” Parents like me have come to love Emily Oster’s ability to cut through the noise. Everything changes your brain. Video games are not a completely separate new form of human experience.

Helping a child’s brain develop is a big responsibility. We know that you can mess this up, most obviously in the cases of serious abuse. So, can you put on Sesame Street while you make dinner? Should you allow your son to play video games?  I’ll put the rest under Read More.

Continue reading

Reading The Family Firm

Emily Oster’s newest book on parenting dropped to my Kindle this week. I recommend it to parents if your oldest child is between 2 and 8 years old.*

Her first book in this genre (she invented this genre) was Expecting Better. In that book, pregnant women could get clear answers. Oster could put a precise estimate on the risk of, for example, eating sushi while pregnant. Then it was fairly easy to decide, for yourself, if you would eat sushi.

Right now, I have decisions like this: My 6-year-old says sushi is “yucky”. If I force him to eat it, will he get into a better college? Should I send him to bed without any food if he won’t eat the sushi I made for family dinner?

These are the questions that us, the original Expecting Better crew, now have. The answers are usually vague. That might bother you, if you’d like exact instructions for parenting. Still, I found this book helpful for thinking about parenting. Oster is not going to give you an absolute yes or no on video games for kids. She will summarize all of the relevant studies. Then you have help to set your own boundaries for your own kids based on your Big Picture family goals.

Continue reading

How to Talk to People (elderly and children)

This is a great Youtube video on how to talk to people with memory loss. It’s for family and caregivers. It’s a helpful free practical resource for an aging population. (40 minutes, but you can get a lot out of the first 20)

Even if you have good intentions, it is surprisingly easy to say something hurtful to another person. Ultimately, these scripts are shortcuts for what I think you would say if you had deep empathy and spent time getting to know the person you are speaking to. To save time, if you can find a good script writer, steal their lines. Economists speak of “money on the sidewalk”. Learning tricks that enable you to express what you actually mean to people seems like free money, speaking as a life-long awkward person.

On the other end of life, there is an Instagram account @biglittlefeelings with good tips for talking to toddlers. Here’s a video with Danny Silk on kids and and how they interpret attempts to control them.

What Women Want

What do women want, if they have kids and no budget constraint? I think a lot of women would choose what this wealthy mom of 3 has, if they could afford it.

The title of a current article from Parents magazine is “‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Star Caterina Scorsone on Raising 3 Daughters of Different Ages and Abilities” The subtitle is “As a mom of three, … Scorsone leans on her own sisters and a community of chosen family to balance work and parenting, spend one-on-one time with each child…”

What is a “community of chosen family”? You pay those people. They are chosen, to be sure. According to the article, along with help from relatives,

The actress also relies on a babysitter, Sam, and a nanny and former restaurateur, Frances, who does much of the cooking. “I would never perpetuate the myth that it’s all easy,” says the actress, who shares custody with her ex. But she’s quick to count blessings, especially for the “ridiculous salary” that comes from playing Dr. Amelia Shepherd … “COVID-19 forced people to acknowledge how hard it is to work and parent. My sister and nanny lend their talents to our family while I lend my skills to the show.”

I’m all for specialization and trade. I think it’s great that she can pay someone else to clean up kid messes. The next part seemed more odd to me.

“She also carves out one-on-one time with each daughter on weekends. “I make sure to check in with each individually,” she says. “Besides, it’s more peaceful. If we spend an entire weekend as one pack, there’s a lot of fighting and crying!”

I better pause to say that I am not judging this woman. I’m not trying to tear her down or label her as out of touch, as so many internet dwellers did to Chrissy Teigen. I’m considering whether a wealthier society of the future would choose to wall off negative social interactions.

If you spend time as a family, there will be “a lot of fighting and crying”. My nuclear family spent the weekend “as one pack”. We took the kids through the Ruby Falls cave tour. Here is a picture of my kids fighting, 300 feet under the surface of the earth! They have also fought at 30,000 feet in the air.

Part of me would like to pay someone else to deal with the fighting (more likely to be a robot than a human domestic helper in the future). Would that ultimately be a good choice? One reason wealthy people live in atomized nuclear families is to shield themselves from humanity’s “fighting and crying.” Generally, the last human interaction we preserve is the highs and lows of our own children. (Lots of people live with a “partner” but people get divorced at a much higher rate than they abandon their children.)

How much fighting would very wealthy people choose? Would they make a good choice? Is there any such thing as a real relationship without fighting?

What if humanity avoids cataclysmic disasters for the next 100 years and they become much richer? What struggles would they choose to keep? Are there hardships that no one would choose, but which ultimately enrich life?

The highly atomized nuclear family is a modern phenomenon. Wealth enables us to live apart from each other, but that can in turn lead to loneliness and frustration. If the future humans are instead poorer than we are today, then there is a good chance that kids will be raised by a tribe once again. Sometimes I wish my kids had more tribe, but I also try not to romanticize the past. A tribe is not “a nanny and former restaurateur.”

When I contemplate the low rate of voluntary vaccination around me, it makes me worry that we are headed for the poorer route. But it’s still worth thinking about what would happen if we get much richer.

Scale and Online Learning

A simplistic view that I have heard about online learning is that it is of worse quality but cheaper than traditional classroom learning.

We should take the cheaper part seriously. Cheaper can mean new opportunities for many people. Delivering a lecture online can mean that, once the fixed cost of creating the video is incurred, the marginal cost of adding a student is nearly zero. The average cost of delivering instruction goes down with every student who joins the course. Economy of scale is a wonderful thing.

Now, let’s assume a family that has a quiet home and reliable internet service. Assume that a mom, m, signed up for a rock/geology class, r, for her school-aged son who cannot read. It’s me. I signed my son up for an online “rock camp”. I thought it would give me 45 minutes of time to get work done while my son was distracted in a Zoom room.

This week I got an email from the online school company about how to get ready for rock camp. I’m instructed to assemble a supply kit of about 30 items so that my kid can do a hands-on science experiment every day of the camp. This is not what I thought I was signing up for, and I no longer think rock camp is going to save me any time.  It gets me thinking about scale and online education for kids.

All the parents of rock campers will have to separately assemble a kit of supplies. The economies of scale would come from having the children in a physical school. Buy the supplies in bulk and hand out a pack to each kid all at the same time. It would be great to have a *classroom* where the students could *go*. Even though many classes do not involve vinegar and magnets, the point can generalize.

We should take scale seriously. I support experimenting with different kinds of education and giving students choices. Personally, I benefitted from getting to pilot an experimental program at my high school that allowed me to take microeconomics for college credit online. I also participate in online education sometimes as an educator.

However, it’s overly simplistic to say that the scale idea always points us in the direction of online education. Even at the university level, some products/services can be cheaper to deliver in a traditional class setting.

Fertility and Choices

James blogged this week about fertility in rich countries. I’m presenting an anecdote that was interesting to me in light of the data he presented on college. He presented a “J-curve” demonstrating that the highest fertility rate (2.2 children per woman) occurs among women who did not complete high school in the US. Women who had 4 years of college are collectively at below-replacement fertility. Women with more than 16 years of school, meaning they have an advanced degree, are closer to having 2 children on average, although still below replacement.

According to Hazan and Zoabi (2015), “By substituting their own time for market services to raise children and run their households, highly educated women are able to have more children and work longer hours.” At least some of that J-curve can be explained by the fact that the most highly educated women have more money than the woman who are at only 15 years of schooling. So, the highly educated woman can buy childcare for multiple children in the US. (Having two kids in full-time daycare usually costs more than $20,000 per year).

I saw a discussion on Twitter this week that made me think about the marginal choice to have children and how that relates to education. A journalist who lives in New York City tweeted that, “there is literally nothing encouraging me to have a kid right now in the US even though I am a prime candidate on paper”. Another woman replied that she, similarly, feels like she could have a child right now but is leaning toward not doing it. She explained, “I’m torn because part of me believes in helping raise the next generation to be conscious citizens and all that, but another part of me thinks climate change has already claimed our future and it’s futile?!” 

This sounds like the position of a college-educated “global citizen”. The way I relate it to James’s post is that I think someone who never went to college is less likely to hold her normative view of parenting.

I’m reading the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Here is what Adam Smith wrote about about global citizens mindset or what he called “universal benevolence”.

This universal benevolence, how noble and generous soever, can be the source of no solid happiness to any man who is not thoroughly convinced that all the inhabitants of the universe… are under the immediate care and protection of that great… all-wise Being… To this universal benevolence, on the contrary, the very suspicion of a fatherless world, must be the most melancholy of all reflections…

TMS

How Will Rich Country Fertility Ever Get Back Above Replacement?

For population to be steady or rising, the average women needs to have at least two kids. In almost every rich country- including the United States, all of Europe, and all of East Asia- this isn’t happening. In the extreme case of South Korea, where total fertility averages about one child per woman, the population will fall by half each generation. If this were to go on for 10 generations, South Korea would go from a country of 50 million people- larger than any US state- to one of 50 thousand people, far smaller than any US state. This sounds crazy and I don’t expect it will actually happen- but I can’t say what exactly will stop it from happening.

Global population growth has fallen from a peak of 2.1% per year to the current 1%, and is expected to fall to 0 by 2100. The remaining population growth will happen in poor countries, then stop for the same reasons it did in rich countries- the demographic transition from poverty, argicultural work, and high infant mortality to high incomes, high education, and low infant mortality. As the graph below shows, higher income is an incredibly strong predictor of low fertility- and so if economic growth continues, we should expect fertility to continue falling. But where does it stop?

2019 TFR from Population Reference Bureau vs 2019 PPP-adjusted GDP Per Capita fron World Bank

Some have theorized a “J-curve” relationship, where once incomes get high enough, fertility will start rising again. You can see this idea in “Stage 5” of Max Roser’s picture of the demopgraphic transition here:

This makes sense to me in theory. As countries get richer, desired fertility (the number of kids each woman wants to have) has fallen, but realized fertility (the number of kids each woman actually has) has fallen faster. In a typical rich country women would like to have 2-2.5 kids, but actually ends up having about 1.5. There are many reasons for this, but some are clearly economic- the high cost of goods and services that are desired by rich-country parents, like child care, education, and spacious housing near high-paying jobs. Perhaps in a rich enough country all these could be obtained with a single income (maybe even from a part-time job). But it seems we aren’t there yet. Even zooming in on higher-income countries, higher incomes still seem to lead to lower fertility.

TFR vs GDP Per Capita in countries with GDP Per Capita over 30k/yr

The only rich countries with fertility above replacement are Panama and the Seychelles (barely meeting my 30k/yr definition of rich), Kuwait (right at replacement with 2.2 kids per woman), and Israel- the biggest outlier, with 3 children per woman at a 42k/yr GDP. This hints that pro-fertility religious culture could be one way to stay at or above replacement. But in most countries, rising wealth seems to drive a decline in religiousity along with fertility. Will this trend eventually come to Israel? Or will it reverse in other countries, as more “pro-fertility” beliefs and cultures (religious or otherwise) get selected for?

To do one more crazy extrapolation like the disappearance of South Korea, the number of Mormons is currently growing by over 50% per generation from a base of 6 million while the rest of the US is shrinking. If these trends continue (and setting aside immigration), in at most 10 generations the US will be majority-Mormon. Again, I don’t actually expect this, but I don’t know whether it will be falling Mormon fertility, non-Mormon fertility somehow rising back above replacement, or something else entirely that changes our path.

What would a secular pro-fertility culture look like? For my generation, I see two big things that make people hold back from having kids: a desire to consume experiences like travel and nightlife that are harder with kids, and demanding careers. I see more potential for change on the career front. Remote work means that more quality jobs will be available outside of expensive city centers. Remote work, along with other technological and cultural changes, could make it easier to work part-time or to re-enter the work force after a break. Improving educational productivity so that getting better-education doesn’t have to mean more years of school would be a game-changer; in the short run I think people will spend even more time in school but I see green shoots on the horizon.

Looking within the US, we are just beginning to see what looks like the “J-curve” happening. Since about the year 2000, women with advanced degrees began to have more children than those with only undergraduate education (though still fewer than those with no college, and still below replacement):

From Hazan and Zoabi 2015, “Do Highly Educated Women Choose Smaller Families?”

We see a similar change with income. In 1980 women from richer households clearly had fewer children, but by 2010 this is no longer true:

Fertility of married white women, from Bar et al. 2018, “Why did rich families increase their fertility? Inequality and marketization of child care”

The authors of the papers that produced the two graphs above argue that this change is due to “marketization”, the increasing ability to spend money to get childcare and other goods and services that make it easier to take care of kids. If this is true, it could bode well for getting back to replacement- markets first figure out how to make more excellent daycare and kid-related gadgets, then figure out how to make them cheap enough for wide adoption.