family with four kids“Soon we’ll have our own lacrosse team!”In Tina Fey’s recent piece in The New Yorker, she writes that elite Manhattanites seem to be trying to outpopulate the rest of us: 

I thought that raising an only child would be the norm in New York, but I’m pretty sure my daughter is the only child in her class without a sibling. All over Manhattan, large families have become a status symbol. Four beautiful children named after kings and pieces of fruit are a way of saying, “I can afford a four-bedroom apartment and $150,000 in elementary-school tuition fees each year. How you livin’?”

Are the super-rich really having more kids? In the last few years — particularly before the economic meltdown — anecdotes and frothy trend pieces on the subject proliferated. Actual data have been more elusive. 

Steven Martin, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, is one of the few people to cough up actual numbers on the issue. “Families in the top 10 percent or even top 5 percent of household earnings aren’t having detectably larger families,” he wrote in 2008. But the story is different for Americans in the top 1 to 1.5 percent: “There has been a significant rise in the proportion of three- and four-child families among the super-rich.” In another analysis, he notes that the proportion of affluent American families with four or more kids increased from 7 percent in 1991-1996 to 11 percent in 1998-2004.

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Author Pamela Paul rounded up a few more numbers for a piece in The Washington Post: “A [2008] analysis of Current Population Survey data by the Council on Contemporary Families found that in the past 10 years, the top-earning 1.3 percent of the population has seen an uptick in families with three or more children. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 12 percent of upper-income women had three children or more in 2002, compared with only 3 percent in 1995.”

Where the data leave off, the trend pieces pick up.

Like this snarky rant in The New York Observer from 2007: 

In richest Manhattan, an alarming trend has risen from the primordial ooze that is hedge-fund money. This trend is flooding the chic nursery schools, clogging the fashionable secondary schools and sending many a billionaire from a sports car into a giant gas-guzzling Denali. Yes, the hot accessory of 2007 is children — but not just one or two. It seems that fashionable women in Manhattan just can’t stop popping them out.

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Time picked up the thread in more sober tones: “There’s an odd phenomenon being reported in tony enclaves across the country: highly educated, highly compensated couples popping out four or more children — happily and by choice.” A lengthy article along the same lines in The Boston Globe Magazine (reposted here) quotes a pediatrician in affluent Wellesley, Mass., saying, “having four kids has become the new status symbol, like having a luxury SUV. It says you can afford it; you can have a nanny to help you out.” In the Observer, Molly Jong-Fast blames the uptick in part on in-vitro fertilization, which the rich can easily afford and which often leads to multiple births.

The economic crash of 2008 seems to have put a stop to this trend-piece trend, but does that mean the uber-rich are no longer pumping out so many sprogs?

Average Americans are certainly having fewer kids these days — in 2009, the birthrate in the U.S. hit its lowest point in a century — probably in large part because of the tenuous economic times. If you’re out of a job or underemployed or even simply worried about your economic future, you might think twice before having a(nother) child, considering that it can cost well north of $200,000 to raise a kid just until the age of 18. 

But the recession doesn’t seem to be hurting those hedge-fund managers, so the super-rich might still be procreating at a higher rate than the rest of us. Hell, they might even be having an easier time hiring their armies of nannies because the job market is so tight.

The average American slurps up more resources than almost everyone else on the planet, and the mega-rich blow the average American out of the water in terms of consumption and environmental impact — collecting all the latest fashions and gadgets, flying by private jet to Jackson Hole and St. Barts, sprawling out into multiple massive homes.

I’ll give the last word on this to Bill McKibben, who wrote a book about his own decision to have one kid and recently chatted with me about the issue. When The Boston Globe Magazine asked him about the apparent trend of the rich having more kids, he said, “In a sense, there’s something good happening here: That people have, after a period of fixation on career, rediscovered the wonderfulness of families. But as with so many things, we confuse ‘more’ and ‘better.'”