What's it cost to raise a child? Maybe less than you think

OTTAWA – A prominent think tank raised eyebrows on Thursday by releasing data suggesting the financial toll of parenthood has never been lighter.

Research from the right-of-centre Fraser Institute found that the cost of raising a child in Canada totalled no more than $4,500 a year per offspring, less than half of more common estimates of $10,000 or more.

The research group, which studies economic and social issues from a fiscally conservative perspective, also argued that the figure could be lowered even further by penny-wise parents who commit to pruning all unnecessary expenses from their child-rearing budgets.

But the Institute’s research was greeted with consternation by many parents who contend the study fails to account for the rigours of modern life.

The research deliberately excluded the cost of day-care, housing and extra-curricular activities, all of which are vital and costly items in most family budgets, they said.

Study author Chris Sarlo said the bear-bones approach was a deliberate research decision.

The cost of raising a child in this country is a controversial issue, he conceded, adding family finances are mostly subjective and therefore difficult to compare.

Sarlo opted to focus only on the additional cost each child would bring to the family, leaving out expenses that may have been previously incurred by the parents such as housing and automobiles.

“If we lump in costs that were going to be there anyway, . . . . . . I think it’s inappropriate to put that on the children,” Sarlo said in a telephone interview from North Bay, Ont. “That’s not a cost that’s necessarily unique to children. It’s going to be there whether the family has children or not.”

After analyzing Statistics Canada’s 2009 Survey of Household Expenses, Sarlo concluded the baseline cost of raising a child fell between $3,000 and $4,500 per child per year.

The numbers suggest it’s perfectly possible to raise a happy, healthy child for less than expected, he said, adding the majority of families will opt for additional expenses.

Many parents cried foul, however, arguing those additional expenses are the very things that enhance a child’s quality of life in the present and chances of success in the future.

Janice Biehn, a mother of two and editor of Parents Canada, said the numbers don’t reflect the realities most parents face.

She decried the failure to account for day-care costs, arguing many parents must work in order to pay the bills.

More importantly, she argued, the study glossed over the cost of extra-curricular activities that she sees as key to a child’s social and academic development.

Sports, clubs, music lessons and scouting troops are just some of the activities that have potential to enhance a child’s life, she said, adding none of those activities are free.

The importance of after-school activities was also highlighted in a recent University of Toronto study, which found children enrolled in extra-curricular programs had higher grades, lower dropout rates and healthier social relationships than those who were left to their own devices after class.

Biehn said the Fraser Institute study is right to advocate the need to raise children on a budget, but believes the analysis doesn’t capture the big picture.

“I’m all for getting off the fast-track of parenting and putting your kids in 18 different activities. I do believe that parents are under pressure to do that, and I don’t want them to be,” she said. “Having said that, I think you need to be realistic that of course they’re going to cost more than $3,000 to $4,500 a year.”

Toronto mother of three Maureen Colford also lamented the failure to account for the costs of disabled kids, a group that made up just under five per cent of all children in 2008.

Medication, equipment and specialized care can add thousands to a family budget, she said.

But Colford believed the greatest oversight came from failing to account for the lack of community support in many places across the country. Social service cutbacks mean that children of all income levels have limited access to services that were once within reach, she said, adding the onus falls on parents to make up the difference.

“Every child probably does need books, and we don’t have as many libraries as we used to,” Colford said. “Every child does need time outdoors. Well, not everybody lives beside a park. Not every child has phys-ed in school. Not every child has all these other things.

Parents who want to provide that will have to spend more.”