‘Having kids shouldn’t be a luxury’ - Mumsnet response to cost of a child research

New research has revealed that families on minimum wage are 18% short of the amount needed for a basic standard of living. Here, MN blogger Catherine Mann argues that parenting must not become the preserve of the rich.

Everyone knows that August is an expensive time to be a parent. Whether it's paying for a holiday away, funding all-day childcare while school is shut, or just buying a round of ice creams on a day out - the break from routine can't help but put additional pressure on the family budget. And that's before you start to restock the uniform drawers.

Research published, though, shows that it's not just during the summer that parents' purses are feeling the pinch. Families are being hit hard by the double whammy of price rises and a decline in the extent to which the state helps families. And the figures are stark.

In the past two years, the average minimum cost of raising a child has risen by 8%. This means that families working full time at the national minimum wage are 18% short of the amount needed for a minimum standard of living. At 43%, the shortfall for out-of-work families is even greater – and in both cases, lone parents fare far worse than their counterparts in couples.

So what lies behind these increases? No parent will be surprised to hear that food makes up a quarter of the basic cost of raising a child – and the price of food has risen by 25% in the past six years. Keeping warm, clean and dry is necessary for every household, but especially those in which there are small children – and domestic energy bills have gone up by 45% in the same period. There are other, less obvious, increases too. Cuts to public transport in many places have meant that, for the first time, some families, especially those in rural or isolated areas are dependent on having a car or paying taxi fares in order to shop, work and access the services they need.

Then, of course there's childcare. If both parents are working - the model which is increasingly being proposed as the best way to boost a family's financial circumstances - then childcare can account for 45% of the cost of raising a child. Together with food and energy, the cost of childcare has soared in the past few years, rising by almost half since 2008, while average wages have increased by just one fifth. Add in a freeze to Child Benefit and a cap on the tax credits which families in work receive to top up their wages, and it's not hard to see why many parents are really struggling to make ends meet.

Critics often scoff at the notion of true poverty in this country, and point to people on low incomes with mobile phones or flat screen televisions as evidence that "they're not really poor." However, in this report, the 'minimum standard of living' is based on the essential items needed for each household type, agreed by a panel of members of the public. The calculation for families on low incomes is dominated by food, clothes and shelter, but also rightly includes those items which are needed in order to have the opportunities and choices necessary to participate in society. Over the course of a childhood, having the money to pay for the occasional trip to the swimming pool, or to buy a small present if invited to a classmate's party isn't a luxury - it allows the child to feel that she matters and that she belongs, something in many ways as fundamental to her development as getting enough to eat.

There is a separate argument to be had about the level and the adequacy (or otherwise) of benefit payments made to those who are out of work for whatever reason. That aside, when the mantra that we hear about changes to the welfare structure is that they are aimed at 'making work pay', surely we need to ensure that it does just that? "Don't have children if you can't afford them", many will say, as if babies are a consumer choice much like building a conservatory, or going on a cruise, and ignoring the fact that circumstances can change. Of course it has always been more expensive to have children than not, and of course it makes sense for people to be encouraged to live within their means. We seem, though, to be sleepwalking into an era in which having children is becoming an unattainable luxury. If raising a family with some degree of dignity becomes unaffordable for many people, even if they're earning, its more than just individual parents who will pay the price.

This blog post originally appeared on Mumsnet.com, written by Catherine Mann.