Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Having children: costs and ideology

By Donald Sensing

Reposted from donaldsensing.com; links were good at time of original

The demographic "death spiral" of most European countries has been analyzed and written about for a few years now. In first-world countries it takes an average of 2.1 births per woman to maintain a stable population. More births than that and the population grows, less and it declines. Thirteen European countries are solidly below 2.1 and several are way below. America's overall average is 2.08, but some demographic sectors of our society are carrying the freight for the rest - Hispanic women, for example, have a higher average birth rate than white women. Why has the birth rate declined so much? Glenn Reynolds has an incisive piece is TCS in which he explores the shrinking American family of a cost-benefit perspective.

Children used to provide cheap labor, and retirement security, all in one. Now they're pretty much all cost and no return, from a financial perspective. ... There's also the decline in parental prestige over generations. My mother reports that when she was a newlywed (she was married in 1959) you weren't seen as fully a member of the adult world until you had kids. Nowadays to have kids means something closer to an expulsion from the adult world.
It's true that raising children is expensive - heck, just getting newborns home from the hospital is pretty expensive! But of the two sides of this coin, the social costs that Glenn talks about are far more important.
[P]arenting has become more expensive in non-financial as well as financial terms. It takes up more time and emotional energy than it used to, and there's less reward in terms of social approbation. This is like a big social tax on parenting and, as we all know, when things are taxed we get less of them. Yes, people still have children, and some people even have big families. But at the margin, which is where change occurs, people are less likely to do things as they grow more expensive and less rewarded.
There is enormous social pressure on parents to have two kids and stop, especially since most adults have been brainwashed over the last forty years or so to think that the world is badly overpopulated and human beings are a blight upon the planet. As my high-school son told me this school year, the not-very-subtle message of his required block of ecological studies was that there is nothing wrong with earth's environment that the disappearance of humanity couldn't solve. As Ronald Bailey wrote in Reason Online,
"Coercive population control has long been an established and widely accepted precept of ideological environmentalism."
But the anti-human bias of the environmental movement is only one part of the picture. Since 1970 or so the feminist movement has continuously and often rabidly devalued mothering as something successful women do. Motherhood has been propagandized (even demonized) as what losers do when they can't hold down a real job, or better yet, a profession. The social pressure on young women to "succeed" at something before having children - even before getting married at all - is huge. More and more women who have babies are having them at later ages, and this fact tends to push down the total number of babies a woman will have. A woman whose firstborn comes along when she's 30 is a lot less likely to have three more kids than a woman who first gives birth at 23. Some data - births by age, 1970 v. 2003:

1970:
Age 20-24 -- 1,418,874 
Age 25-29 -- 994,904
Age 30-34 -- 427,806 
Age 35-39 -- 180,244
2003:
Age 20-24 -- 1,032,337 
Age 25-29 -- 1,086,898 
Age 30-34 -- 975,964 
Age 35-39 -- 467,520
It's true that advances in prenatal medicine have made it safer for women to give birth at older ages than they could before, but the figures still show that overall, first babies are being born to older women than ever before. A corresponding social fact of life is that women are getting married much later than before, too, if they get married at all (nationwide, the marriage rate has plunged 43 percent since 1960). Obviously, a lot of women have children without ever being married, but marriage followed by children is still the norm. In place of marriage is cohabitation, which has increased tenfold since 1960. This development was impelled by the Pill, which has served to separate having sex from its reproductive consequences for married and unmarried women alike. In pre-Pill days a married couple might want two children and settle for four, but no longer. As well, men are affected by the separation sex from fatherhood. I explored this issue from a related angle in the Wall Street Journal back in 2004.
Over the last four decades, men have discovered that marriage is no longer the sure way to sex. Women have discovered that men's sexual and emotional commitment to them isn't usually gained by giving men sex before marriage. As the old saying goes, "Why buy a cow when milk is so cheap?" If most women offer men sex apart from marriage, then the need for men to commit to sexual loyalty to a particular woman is greatly lessened, even eliminated. Then women look around and wonder why so many men they know all seem to be rotters who aren't interested in marriage.
See also my op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, "Save Marriage? It's too late."

The decline of marriage has undoubtedly had a significant effect on the birth rate, although the rate of children born to unmarried parents is rising. But the costs such as Glenn discusses are so high for single parenting that while more unmarried women are giving birth than before, they are having no more children apiece than married women (lots of birth-related stats here).

Update: ShrinkWrapped blog says that widespread "narcissistic pathology" is one reason for the shrinking family. See also Dean Esmay's observations, echoed by several commenters, that anti-male bias in divorce law and society in general inhibits men from marrying more than before.

Update: Joshua Zeitz, writing in American Heritage magazine, says that the birth rate per woman had fallen to three by 1920, and that the sexual revolution began decades before the Pill, with World War II being a major contributor. "The pill didn't create America's sexual revolution, but it may have accelerated it—and that revolution had been had been a long time in the making." Link.