By Alan Wisdom
The demographic news is disturbing. In late November the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the nation’s birthrate had fallen to a record low level. The total lifetime fertility rate is now down to 1.9 per woman, forecasting future population decline and difficulties in sustaining the social welfare system. These trends are correlated with other worrisome developments: fewer people are marrying, they are marrying later in life, and fewer births occur inside marriages. The fear is that America may follow the path of demographic decline and cultural collapse down which Europe has already gone far.
Is there hope for reversing these trends? Can public policy contribute to rebuilding a culture in which marriage and childbearing are once again highly honored? These were the questions that four speakers addressed at a December 7 symposium sponsored by the journal The Family in America.
Carlson Narrates Ups and Downs of Family Policies
Allan Carlson, the journal’s editor, led off the conference by recalling an earlier period when U.S. birthrates had dropped precipitously: the Great Depression of the 1930s. The architects of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal consciously aimed to counteract that trend, according to Carlson. He described them as “paternalists” who favored larger families headed by “a breadwinning father and an at-home mother.”
Social Security, Carlson said, was initially designed to foster that kind of family. The intention was to ease the burden of young couples caring for aging parents, so that they would feel freer to “invest in children.” Likewise, the introduction of the child exemption into the income tax system, as well as the opportunity for married couples to file jointly, rewarded family formation. The benefits of subsidized mortgages through the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration flowed disproportionately to young couples ready to start their families. These policies, in Carlson’s telling, played a part in the unprecedented “baby boom” of the 1950s.
But starting in the 1960s, “the U.S. Congress deconstructed” many of those pro-natalist policies, Carlson argued. Income taxes and entitlement programs now imposed a “marriage penalty.” As Social Security benefits went up, there was a reduced incentive to have children to care for parents in their old age. Indeed, Carlson asserted, international studies have demonstrated that “the level and scope of a country’s social security benefits is inversely correlated to birthrate.” The causation runs both ways: A generous Social Security system facilitates smaller families, and a society with fewer children feels greater need to underwrite its elderly with ample benefits.
Student loans also have a perverse side-effect, according to Carlson. One-third of young adults now say that the weight of their educational debts holds them back from marriage and childbearing.
Carlson believed that the negative trends could be reversed if the policies were changed. He proposed “four policies that might make a difference”:
- Raise the child tax exemption to incentivize childbearing. If deficit reduction requires that taxes go up in general, Carlson declared, “I would stick the tax increase entirely to the childless rich and call it the Mr. Potter tax,” after the selfish banker in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life.
- Give “extra retirement credit” for parents, provided that their children have graduated high school and have no criminal record.
- Extend tax credits for families that care for their own children at home.
- For every child born to a student loan recipient, forgive 25 percent of the parents’ educational debt.
Carlson acknowledged that his proposals are “not politically possible now.” He insisted, however, that “it’s time to move out of that increasingly narrow and sterile box” of what is politically possible.
Morse Decries a ‘War against Women’s Fertility’
Jennifer Roback Morse, founder and president of the Ruth Institute, was equally controversial—and more confrontational. Responding to recent campaign rhetoric about an alleged “war on women,” Morse fired back: “The real war is a war against women’s fertility.” She explained, “People regard women’s fertility as a problem to be solved rather than a gift from God.” The solution promoted by society and government is to “chemically neuter ourselves” through hormonal contraceptives.
Many women accept that solution, Morse contended, because “in our desire for career advancement, we have forced ourselves into career paths designed for men.” Those paths typically demand an intense investment of time and energy during the 20s and early 30s. Morse maintained that “the educational and labor system is built around women who delay children until [they are] 35,” when their window of fertility is rapidly closing.
“I say women would be better off,” Morse asserted, “if they accepted the fact that their fertility peaks in the 20s” and if they more often married and had children at that age. If women had to de-emphasize their careers at the front end, she suggested, they might be compensated by their greater longevity at the back end of their careers.
“The university is no more welcoming of women today than in the 1950s,” Morse charged. “We are welcome as long as we don’t act like women …, like fertile beings.” She noted the absence of baby changing stations on most campuses she had visited. “It’s time that we insist that the university and the labor force adapt to us and our bodies,” she said.
The recent Health and Human Services mandate requiring health insurance to cover hormonal contraceptives free of charge conveys “a message that pregnancy is a disease” to be prevented, according to Morse. “As a woman, I deeply resent the implication that the normal, healthy functioning of my body is a disease.”
“The federal government should stop promoting the use of contraceptives,” Morse maintained. “Contraception is freely available for those who choose to use it.”
Morse contrasted two views of sex and childbearing. She observed that “many modernists resent sex differences” and try to suppress their emergence as men and women form sexual relationships and conceive children. On the other hand, “Christianity and Judaism embrace” sex differences as part of God’s plan for humankind. “Love, sex, and childbearing are integrated under the umbrella of marriage” in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
“Which vision appeals to you?” Morse asked her audience. “The vision of the intrinsic meaning of sex, or the vision of the intrinsic meaninglessness?”
Brooks and Murray Skeptical about ‘Shifting the Cultural Winds’
New York Times columnist David Brooks poured the cold water of skepticism on Carlson’s and Morse’s ambitions for social change. To Morse he replied, “A lot of the things you’re talking about were as if we’re living in a different universe.” Brooks considered it improbable that former patterns of early marriage and childbearing could be restored. “Life scripts have completely shattered,” he said. “We don’t have a firm pathway for people.” For most young people today, their 20s are a time to find their way, and they are not ready to marry or have children.
Brooks was equally dubious of Carlson’s policy proposals. “If those policies worked in the 1940s,” he asked, “how can we be sure they will work now?”
“We must acknowledge the incredibly powerful cultural headwinds,” Brooks said. American society is “wealthier, more individualistic,” and “prioritizes moments of happiness.” These values run counter to childrearing. “Childrearing means trading happiness for fulfillment,” according to Brooks. “It takes a self-sacrificing attitude” that is less common today.
“I would have limited expectations of shifting the cultural winds,” concluded Brooks. “The only thing I know that works [in raising birthrates] is making everyone Hasidic.”
Charles Murray—author of Losing Ground, The Bell Curve (with the late Richard Herrnstein), and Coming Apart—picked up the theme of religion’s influence on marriage and childbearing choices. Murray located the roots of Europe’s demographic crisis in a loss of religious faith. Most European audiences he has addressed take it for granted that a human being is merely a temporary aggregation of organic molecules and “the purpose of existence is to pass the time as pleasantly as possible.” This attitude provides little motivation to sacrifice for the sake of a new generation.
Murray judged, “There is no reason to think that the [U.S.] drop in religiosity will not continue until we reach European levels.” But he added, “We may very well be at the nadir of a curve” in religiosity. The 20th century may have been a phase of “adolescent” rebellion against religion, Murray theorized, while the 21st century could yield a more mature faith. “The yearning to make sense of the universe is something that is not easily extinguished.”
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