The debate about how best to raise children has long centred on the pros and cons of different family structures.
Many conservatives believe that the nuclear family is the best arrangement for raising kids, and that it gives them the best chance at a successful adult life. They see marriage as the cornerstone of this arrangement, and assume that both parents will be present and emotionally invested in the upbringing of their children. Many progressives find this emphasis on the nuclear family model too rigid, and are sceptical that a nuclear family structure necessarily produces better life outcomes than other arrangements. They note that extended family and members of the wider community often help raise children, and suggest that society should not treat any particular family arrangement as more advantageous than others.
There are elements of truth in both these perspectives. On average, intact, dual-parent households are more likely than single-parent or separated families to raise children successfully, although individual outcomes vary. It’s also true that the nuclear family often isn’t sufficient for raising kids, and that it can be important to have a larger community of people involved in the effort. Brad Wilcox, director of the Centre for Marriage, argues that one of the benefits of a two-parent nuclear family is that it often brings with it the involvement of a child’s extended family.
However, this argument makes a key assumption: that the extended family lives close enough to the children that they can be this village in day-to-day life. Simply having grandparents and extended family is not particularly beneficial if they live far away: any caring support they provide will necessarily be less frequent, and they will be unlikely to help reduce parents’ childcare workload on a regular basis.
Yet it is becoming less common for young families to live near their parents, in part because of the increased cost of housing in our cities. Many middle-class baby boomers who got into the market while it was affordable have seen homes in their neighbourhood increase in price.
In almost all the large cities in Australia, the US and Canada, the cost of housing has well outpaced the rise in wages, making it difficult for many families with young children to settle anywhere near the neighbourhoods they grew up in, which is often where their children’s grandparents still live. For example, in Sydney, where I grew up, the median house price has tripled over the past 15 years, and very few of my childhood friends have been able to afford to buy a home and raise their families there.
As a result, families are more intergenerationally fragmented. The rare few who have managed to settle near their extended families tend to have high incomes, or parents wealthy enough to help out. This leads families with young children to rely more heavily on paid childcare instead of grandparents while they are working. (In Australia, 63% of these childcare fees are subsidised by the taxpayer, a significant and growing source of public expenditure.) This trend may also lead families to rely increasingly on institutional care for the aged, since middle aged adults are less likely to live close enough to their parents to provide them with regular caregiving.
An economic rationalist might argue that retirees whose homes have increased significantly in value should simply sell them and move somewhere cheaper to be closer to their families. But many older people have developed lifelong friendships and connections in their neighbourhood. Moving at this late stage of life can be highly stressful and even emotionally destabilizing. On the other hand, regular contact with grandchildren is an important source of well-being and life satisfaction for grandparents, so creating the social and economic conditions to allow that is important.
There can, of course, be upsides to living away from one’s hometown. Forging a new life can be liberating, and can broaden what might otherwise have been a relatively provincial life experience. Some people may find living close to their extended family stifling; settling elsewhere allows for a degree of independence that they might not otherwise have had.
But it would be better if people had a choice about whether to live close to their families. We should acknowledge that increasingly unaffordable city housing can undermine our well-being if it forces extended families to live further apart than they otherwise would. Instead of viewing increased housing prices solely as a source of increased personal wealth for homeowners, we should keep these indirect social costs in mind.
These concerns should resonate across the political spectrum. From the perspective of those on the left, a booming real estate market is a problem because it leaves people on lower incomes with fewer affordable options and deepens economic inequality. From the perspective of conservatives, keeping city home prices affordable supports families by allowing them to live close to each other.
It’s hard for the village to raise a child if people can’t afford to live there.