Re­treat from child rear­ing cre­ates a trou­bling trend

Austin American-Statesman - - BALANCED VIEWS - FROM THE RIGHT Mon­day Tues­day Wed­nes­day Thurs­day Douthat writes forthe New York Times. Fri­day Satur­day Sun­day

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the eter­nally re­cur­ring de­bates about whether some ri­val great power will knock the United States off its global perch, there has al­ways been one ex­cel­lent rea­son to bet on a sec­ond Amer­i­can cen­tury: We have more ba­bies than the com­pe­ti­tion.

It’s a near-uni­ver­sal law that moder­nity re­duces fer­til­ity. But com­pared with the swiftly ag­ing na­tions of East Asia and West­ern Europe, the Amer­i­can birthrate has proved con­sis­tently re­silient, hov­er­ing around the level re­quired to keep a pop­u­la­tion sta­ble or grow­ing over the long run.

Amer­ica’s de­mo­graphic edge has a va­ri­ety of sources: our fa­mous re­li­gios­ity, our vast in­te­rior and wideopen spa­ces (and the four-bed­room de­tached houses they make pos­si­ble), our will­ing­ness to wel­come im­mi­grants (who tend to have higher birthrates than the na­tive-born).

And it clearly is an edge. To­day’s ba­bies are to­mor­row’s tax­pay­ers and work­ers and en­trepreneurs, and rel­a­tively youth­ful pop­u­la­tions speed eco­nomic growth and keep spend­ing com­mit­ments af­ford­able. Thanks to our rel­a­tive de­mo­graphic dy­namism, the Amer­ica of 50 years hence may not only have more work­ers per re­tiree than coun­tries like Ja­pan and Ger­many, but also have more than emerg­ing pow­ers like China and Brazil.

If, that is, our dy­namism per­sists. But that’s no longer a sure thing. Amer­i­can fer­til­ity plunged with the stock mar­ket in 2008, and it hasn’t re­cov­ered. Last week, the Pew Re­search Cen­ter re­ported that U.S. birthrates hit the low­est rate ever recorded in 2011, with just 63 births per 1,000 women of child­bear­ing age. (The rate was 71 per 1,000 in 1990.) For the first time in re­cent me­mory, Amer­i­cans are hav­ing fewer ba­bies than the French or Bri­tish.

The plunge might be tem­po­rary. Amer­i­can fer­til­ity plum­meted dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion, and more re­cent down­turns have pro­duced mod­est dips as well. This time, the birthrate has fallen fastest among for­eign-born Amer­i­cans, and par­tic­u­larly among His­pan­ics, who saw huge amounts of wealth evap­o­rate with the hous­ing bust. Many peo­ple may sim­ply be post­pon­ing child­bear­ing un­til bet­ter times re­turn, and a few years of swift growth could pro­duce a minia­ture baby boom.

But deeper forces than the fi­nan­cial cri­sis may keep Amer­i­can fer­til­ity rates de­pressed. For­eign-born birthrates will prob­a­bly grad­u­ally re­cover from their cur­rent nadir, but with fer-

Kath­leen Parker

David Brooks

Ross Douthat

Ramesh Ponnuru tility in de­cline across Mex­ico and Latin Amer­ica, it isn’t clear that the U.S. can con­tinue to rely heav­ily on im­mi­grant birthrates to help drive pop­u­la­tion growth.

Among the na­tive-born work­ing class, mean­while, there was a re­treat from child rear­ing even be­fore the Great Re­ces­sion hit. For Amer­i­cans with­out col­lege de­grees, eco­nomic in­sta­bil­ity and a short­age of mar­riage­able men seem to be fur­ther­ing two trends in tan­dem: more women are hav­ing chil­dren out of wed­lock, and fewer are rais­ing fam­i­lies at all.

Fi­nally, there’s been a broader cul­tural shift away from a child-cen­tric un­der­stand­ing of ro­mance and mar­riage. In 1990, 65 per­cent of Amer­i­cans told Pew that chil­dren were “very im­por­tant” to a suc­cess­ful mar­riage; in 2007, just be­fore the cur­rent baby bust, only 41 per­cent agreed.

Government’s power over fer­til­ity rates is lim­ited, but not nonex­is­tent. Amer­ica has no real fam­ily pol­icy to speak of at the moment, and the ev­i­dence from coun­tries like Swe­den and France sug­gests that re­duc­ing the ever-ris­ing cost of hav­ing kids can help fer­til­ity rates re­bound. Whether this means a more fam­ily-friendly tax code, a push for more flex­i­ble work hours, or an ef­fort to re­duce the cost of col­lege, there’s clearly room for cre­ative pol­icy to make some dif­fer­ence.

More broadly, a more se­cure eco­nomic foun­da­tion be­neath work­ing­class Amer­i­cans would pre­sum­ably help pro­mote child­bear­ing as well. Sta­ble fam­i­lies are cru­cial to pros­per­ity and mo­bil­ity, but the re­verse is also true, and poli­cies that made it eas­ier to climb the eco­nomic lad­der would make it eas­ier to raise a fam­ily as well.

Be­neath th­ese pol­icy de­bates, though, lie cul­tural forces that no leg­is­la­tor can really hope to change. The re­treat from child rear­ing is, at some level, a symp­tom of late-mod­ern ex­haus­tion — a deca­dence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich so­ci­eties around the globe. It’s a spirit that priv­i­leges the present over the fu­ture, chooses stag­na­tion over in­no­va­tion, prefers what al­ready ex­ists over what might be.

Such deca­dence need not be per­ma­nent, but nei­ther can it be un­done by po­lit­i­cal willpower alone. It can only be re­versed by the slow ac­cu­mu­la­tion of in­di­vid­ual choices, which is how all so­cial and cul­tural re­cov­er­ies are ul­ti­mately made.

Amity Shlaes Charles Krautham­mer

Ge­orge Will

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