Does the death of a child affect the global economy?

10 Mar

When I was in grad school I had a professor in business law who raised a provocative question, ‘If a child dies is it an economic loss or gain?’ The question was raised in the context of wrongful death suits – should parents be compensated if they lose a child? My initial reaction was visceral and appalled – how could you possibly put a price on a child’s life? I don’t think many people are going to argue with the incredible emotional wealth that our children provide, but the more time I spend working on water safety and drowning prevention issues, the more I believe that we need to look at the hard economic reasons why water safety and drowning prevention should be a global priority at the highest levels of government, and not just a worry for individual parents.

Let’s look at the math – and excuse my back-of-the-envelope calculations since the numbers vary by agency and it’s hard to find hard numbers for any country. Estimates on how much it costs to raise a child range from $250,000 and up, not including college, which generally results in higher future wages. There are around 4 million children born in the U.S. each year, which makes an investment with a lot of zeros (I think $1 quadrillion). But, when these children reach adulthood, most of them will start paying back the investment by being wage-earning, tax-paying, contributing members of society. They will pay to raise the next generation. They will pay to support the older generation. They are, at the most basic level, the core investment that generates our economy.

What happens when a child dies? In the U.S. over 1,500 children die from drowning every year. For every child that dies, 4-5 children almost drown and many of these children require significant ongoing care and may never become economically contributing members of society. So let’s say that, very roughly, the U.S. loses an investment in raising these children of $750 million each year (6000 kids/year at 1/2 the total investment since they die before 18). And what about the lost future earnings for this investment? And the lost earnings of parents/caregivers who may have to reduce their workload to care for a permanently damaged child. Magnify that number significantly.

Now extrapolate that problem out to every developed country because drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death in every developed country. Add in the fact that the International Life Saving Federation estimates that over 97% of drowning accidents happen in less-developed countries. Even with my rough, conservative calculations, I think that a compelling argument can be made that every country should put water safety and drowning prevention on their economic agenda as an urgent matter of economic security.

Some of the ‘hard’ numbers I could find:
One estimate puts the total annual lifetime cost of drowning for children under 14 at $6.8 billion per year.
Near-drowning has the highest average lifetime cost of any injury – $40,071 for each incident.
U.S. coastal drownings alone are estimated to cost $273 million/year.
Near drownings cost the California state government $5.4 million/year.

If anyone has any other ‘hard’ numbers, please forward them, I’m looking for as much data as possible.  Thanks!


6 Responses to “Does the death of a child affect the global economy?”

  1. Stefanie March 10, 2010 at 3:31 pm #

    How crazy is it to put a dollar figure on the life of a child …or is it? In the US, each child safety initiative gets balanced against its cost to implement. In fact, this is the reason seatbelts on school buses are not mandatory across the country. Apparently the number of lives and injuries saved do not cover the cost to retrofit and/or provide new buses. The same goes for mandating safe ambulance transport for children…
    At what point do we say if we save 1 child’s life it is enough? Or better yet, ask your Congressman or woman to tell you whose child’s life is not worth it…ask them to be specific. What parent do they want to tell “if your child dies it doesn’t matter”.
    Hopefully one day they will wake up and realize that the life of EVERY child matters. I fully support Rebecca’s efforts to educate all of us on the need for water safety.

    • Rebecca Wear Robinson March 10, 2010 at 3:43 pm #

      Thank you Stefanie! I think we are all working towards the same goal – whichever route is the most effective!

  2. Swati Bharteey March 12, 2010 at 2:00 pm #

    What a great article! You took something that startled me and gave me something to think about!! I would totally participate in a petitioning campaign or something if needed.

  3. Rebecca Wear Robinson March 13, 2010 at 5:02 pm #

    Thanks Swati! I think that the only way to address the issue of childhood drowning is to put it into terms that people in power can understand – the economic impact of inaction.

  4. Chuck Teasley March 18, 2010 at 10:49 pm #

    Hi Rebecca,
    I really appreciate the posts you author. I love to learn new stuff from smart people. Some of the numbers you spoke about are gravely understated. The number of drownings and cost to fund life support for near drowning victims is significantly higher than you concluded. Coroners in many states do not list drowning as the primary cause of death if the child dies 24 hours or more after the initial immersion. You will find the actual numbers closer to 4,000 child drownings per year.
    When I was in Kentucky we did an analysis on the cost to keep children between the ages of one year and 5 years old alive who were near drowinings. If my memory serves me correctly, it was $74 million in 2004 in Kentucky alone.
    I can not remember where I saw it but the estimated number of childhood deaths worldwide due to prolonged submersion was 250,000.

    • rebeccasavekids March 19, 2010 at 6:57 am #


      Thanks for reading! I really appreciate the added statistics. I didn’t know about drowning not being identified as the cause of death if it happens 24 hours or later. Based on the number of near-drowning accidents I would think that would raise the toll considerably. Again, I appreciate any added statistics.

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