Today I was directed to read an article by Stephanie Mencimer of The Washington Monthly called The Baby Boycott (published in June of 2001). Her thesis was that the desire of conservative Republicans to make it harder for women to work and raise children has engendered a “Baby Boycott” wherein hard working mothers have chosen to not have families (or delayed them). While Ms. Mencimer raises some good points about social engineering and the changing culture of the US that sees a decline in the worth of the Mother in general and the Stay-at-Home Mothers in particular she ignores many underlying reasons for the continued decline in birthrates in the US.
Where does Ms Mencimer fail in her arguments? First off she ignores the continued fall in birthrates in the US since the beginning of the 20th Century. In short the US birthrate been cut in half since about 100 years ago. Looking at the chart of birthrates we see a couple of trends from these graphics.
The first trend is that the overall number of births is higher today then it was at the beginning of the century while the rate is only half that of the turn of the twentieth century. Obviously a much larger population explains that. Still we see birth rates drop dramatically during the Great Depression and then they rise and stay relatively high just following World War II. Then they start to drop off in the mid 60s before a small resurgence in the 80s that leads to another dip in the late 90s.
So, why ignore this statistical data? Ms. Mencimer does at least go back to 1976 (the post WWII low of birthrates and 25 years in the past) to point out the following…
Between 1976 and 1998, the number of women between the ages of 40 and 44 who were childless doubled. Now, 20 percent of baby boomer women are childless and likely to remain so, and demographers predict that as much as a quarter of American women born between 1956 and 1972 will never have children. The numbers go up with education and income levels; fully one-third of women in their late 30’s with graduate degrees have no children. Meanwhile, the number of women with only one child has doubled since 1976, to 18 percent, and the Brady Bunch has gone on the endangered species list. In 1976, a whopping 36 percent of all women had a brood of four or more kids. Today, that number has shrunk to less than 10 percent, according to U.S. Census data.
Disregarding the obvious disparaging tone reserved for the “brood” of four or more, Ms. Mencimer tells us in this passage that the number of women who are childless is rising and get higher with more education and income. She also tells us that family size is decreasing. How much of that is, as she would like us to believe, a product of a conservative conspiracy to keep women at home? It might be one factor, but economic, scientific, and social trends have a great deal more to do with it.
Look at the plummeting birth rate in the 30s during the Great Depression. In this time birth rates and live births plummeted due to famine, lack of economic opportunity, and lack of good medical care. Remember also that in 1910 the number of children that lived to adulthood was much lower then it was post WWII. In the times of prosperity following WWII the birth rate increased as did the number of births until the 60s. The 60s saw the invention of the pill and suddenly easy, cheap contraception was available to the masses. The effects of this availability, the passage of Roe v Wade, and the recessions of the 70s, are easy to see in the plunge to births and birth rates in that time frame. Eventually society adapted to the pill and the birth rate started to climb again. Then we start to see the gradual (by earlier standards) decline in the birth rates (but not in the live births) in the late 90s. Is this the dastardly conservatives doing? Are women now eschewing families because it is too hard to work and raise a family, or is it merely a choice that they are making to delay or avoid having a family. Ms Mencimer dismisses that theory
But the idea that mass childlessness is the product of a “lifestyle choice” or a political movement defies common sense. We are, after all, highly evolved primates. Reproductive instincts are hard wired in our brains, and historically, only events of serious magnitude—wars, depressions, famine, and seismic shifts in the economic system, such as the industrial revolution—have caused large numbers of women to forgo having children. When resources are scarce, and when they don’t have much help, women will postpone motherhood. And despite the romantic myth of the self-sacrificing mother, if given the option, most women will choose to advance their own position before bearing more children. That’s because in the long run, a woman’s improved status benefits her children. It’s a pattern replicated all over the natural world, and has been for thousands of years.
It is here that Ms Mencimer and I seriously depart ways (well the brood comment was uncalled for as well). To float the concept that resource scarcity if the reason behind the lack of children being born is idiotic. You see the US, as a country, is insanely rich in almost every manner. What we consider poverty is incredible wealth in almost every other country in the world. What is wrong is our perception of what wealth really is. Do we all need two cars? Do we need as many clothes as we currently own? Do we need to eat as much as we do? Do we need to eat the type of expensive food that we eat? Do we need computers, cell phones, broadband, cable, NFL Sunday Ticket, DVR’s, $150 tickets to sporting events, $50 haircuts, male highlights, or any of a number of “essential” items in our consumer driven culture. That is what makes us think that we are struggling financially when in fact we are extremely wealthy. Its a matter of perception and the perception that we are poor (created by our culture) is making people think that they need to have fewer children.