[content warning: beep boop I am a robot; this post uses numbers to analyze the benefits to the world of having children, which may be offputting to non-utilitarians. In addition, people who are distressed by the idea of compulsory parenthood may find that this post is either deeply upsetting or an opportunity to identify as an average utilitarian]
Having children is a surprisingly effective form of altruism.
The average cost of raising a child for a middle-income family is approximately $300,000. However, this number does not include opportunity cost of not investing the money, lost income, and college; when you count those three, some guy at Time Magazine says it actually costs $900,000 for a middle income family.
If you are a total utilitarian, the math here is pretty easy. The life expectancy of an American child is 78; hence, you get 78 QALYs, for a cost per QALY of approximately $11,000.
However, Americans are happier than people in other countries. How much happier? The average happiness worldwide is 5.1 on a one out of ten scale; Americans are at 7.1. Arbitrarily deciding that one year of a 10 life is equivalent to two years of a 5 life, the cost per QALY of having a child for total utilitarians is $5500.
If you are an average utilitarian, the math is a bit more complicated. The world life expectancy at birth is 71. Creating a child who lives seven years longer is equivalent to adding three and a half years to two people’s lives, for an unimpressive $250,000/QALY.
However, if we adjust for Americans’ happiness advantage, creating a single American is equivalent to raising two people’s lifelong happiness to 6.1. Adding an additional American is equivalent to 19.5 QALYs, for a cost per QALY of $39,000
Comparison time! The cost per DALY of a malaria net from the Against Malaria Foundation is very very conservatively $38, and probably substantially less, as that calculation does not include any effects except deaths of children averted. It is unlikely that having a child will be more effective than donating to the Against Malaria Foundation.
However, NICE’s threshold for cost effectiveness of a health intervention is about $30,000 (20,000 pounds) per QALY. Therefore, for total utilitarians, having a child may be considered a cost-effective intervention, although not an optimal intervention.
Note that this is the average amount of money a middle-income family spends on their children. It seems probable that a middle-income family is wasting a lot of their money. You can consider dressing your child in second-hand clothing, cutting their hair yourself, buying them few and inexpensive toys, and making your children share their rooms with their siblings. However, the best thing you can do to reduce your costs is to have more children. The marginal cost of a child is much, much less than the average cost of a child. A single eleven-year-old costs $16,000 a year; her and her sixteen-year-old sibling cost $13,500 each; add a third kid and you’re down to $11,000 each.
What conclusions do I draw from this post?
First: I see a lot of effective altruists who plan on having children say “well, it’s really expensive, but nobody is a perfect utilitarian.” This seems to me to be unnecessarily apologetic. If you imagine a spectrum of Not Perfectly Effective Things, where giving to Oxfam is on one end and lighting a bunch of money on fire is on the other, having children is clearly more toward the Oxfam end than the lighting money on fire end. For a total utilitarian, having a child is equivalent to paying $450/month out of pocket for a medication that will keep someone they love alive– perhaps not what a perfect utilitarian would do, but if someone calls you on it you can go “what the fuck, asshole.” (Average utilitarians may continue to be apologetic.)
Second: if you plan on having children, consider having lots of children.
Third: there are some people who should consider specializing in having children. A lot of the cost of having children is lost income; if you don’t earn very much and really like children, consider becoming a parent who works part-time or stays at home. Being a stay-at-home parent opens up a lot of opportunities for frugality, from home-cooked meals to not hiring babysitters. Instead of paying a premium to live in an area with good public schools or sending your children to private school, you can homeschool (although do run a cost-benefit analysis on that; whether it’s worth it depends a lot on your career and area). It is probably best to marry a fellow effective altruist who is high-earning or does direct work and really really wants kids, and then plan to make all the career sacrifices yourself; that way, you can take credit for all the extra money your partner earns because they don’t have to stay home with sick children. You can get additional utilitarian points by babysitting for other EAs or even running a day care out of your home.
Fourth: surrogacy is an underexplored way to do good. Rather than costing money, the first-time surrogate earns thirty thousand dollars, which can grow to forty thousand dollars for experienced surrogates– and it still creates 109 QALYs that otherwise would not exist. These children are likely to grow up in wealthy families who really, really want to have them, and are thus likely to be even happier than this analysis suggests.
The total utilitarian may consider having children and giving them up for adoption. However, this is inferior to surrogacy for several reasons. First, it is very difficult to explain to others and, if widely adopted, may present a PR problem for effective altruism as a whole. Second, you are not paid any money for it and have to pay for your own medical fees. Third, adoption (paradoxically) presents more replaceability concerns than surrogacy: since adoption is substantially cheaper than surrogacy, many parents will try to adopt and, if that doesn’t work, hire a surrogate. Parents who hire a surrogate either want a biologically related child or don’t want to wait for an adoption. If you give up your child to someone who would have otherwise hired a surrogate, instead of a juicy 109 QALYs, you get 0.