Debunking the Marriage and Fertility Crisis

Exposing the absurdity of the right’s latest moral panic

Photo: rasevskaya0/Pixabay

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat scored a perfect 1600 on his SAT.

He would want you to know that, and I don’t mind advertising it for him. After all, given my skepticism about the validity of these tests as proxies for real intelligence, making note of his flawless score serves to drive home rather viscerally the proof of their inadequacy.

Because for a guy who is deemed smart by the standards of our culture, it is nothing short of stunning to read his feeble efforts at erudition, such as the one from this week, which fellow bloviator Ben Shapiro called “excellent” on Twitter because there is honor among fools:

His answer to this utterly fatuous question is, of course, yes — or at least yes, sorta. Douthat, being a man of deep thoughts who aspires to nuance, can’t simply leave it at that, of course. So he tries to offer a hat tip to liberals like Thomas Edsall and Barack Obama, both of whom have publicly proclaimed that families are important and valuable. Presumably, in Douthat’s mind, this separates them from the rest of us, whom he views as eschewing such trivialities in the name of sexual hedonism, divorce as a recreational activity, and perhaps child sacrifice, at least if our coven demands it.

Douthat’s argument is that the nation’s current birth dearth, in which the number of babies being born is below replacement level — meaning each new generation will be smaller than the one before it — is directly traceable to a decline in marriage. Thus, by besmirching the institution, the left can be faulted for declining fertility. Given the economic challenges such a decline poses to the nation (more about which below), it is not merely fertility declines for which liberals can be blamed, but potential economic calamity in years to come as well.

Though it is hard to imagine, and even harder to perform, Douthat manages to be wrong about every single point that comprises his Venn diagram of progressive perfidy. It’s an impressive feat, likely even more improbable than that perfect SAT score.

First, it’s pretty bold to suggest that liberals — who support the ability of millions of people to get married, who previously could not do so — are the ones who oppose marriage. Surely Ross Douthat doesn’t presume that people like Pete Buttigieg wanted to marry their same-sex partners as a way to sully the very notion of matrimony.

Second, liberals and the left are the ones who fight for better jobs and wages for working people, guaranteed health care, and more affordable college education, all of which would facilitate marriage. Financial strain is a crucial contributor to the insecurity that often prevents folks from marrying and starting families. After all, if one’s romantic partner doesn’t have good job prospects, or earn wages sufficient to support a family, or has student loan debt hanging over their heads, waiting until (and unless) things get better might make sense.

Indeed, all the policies that progressives endorse, from the Earned Income Tax Credit, to universal pre-K, to subsidized child care, to paid maternity and paternity leave, to livable wage legislation, are pro-family and functionally conducive to marriage. Yes, even the straight kind Ross, just like Jesus would prefer.

Now, are there some people who oppose the institution of marriage? Oh sure, at least in the traditional, patriarchal sense, and probably many who oppose it altogether. And yes, there is an increasing fascination with polyamory and talk of deconstructing gender roles and binaries and any number of other things that make the Ross Douthats of the world very nervous. But if he genuinely believes that these factors — what he calls the “personal autonomy movement” and the sexual revolution — are behind the substantial declines in marriage and fertility, he is unworthy of the degree conferred upon him by Harvard, which is supposed to be a school for smart people.

LLook, it’s pretty simple. The reason marriage rates are declining in the United States (in addition to the aforementioned economic issues) is because, unlike 50 or 75 or 100 years ago, women have more choices today. In any society where women’s educational and job opportunities expand, marriage rates will decline, and the age at which women marry will rise.

In the 1950s or before, women had far fewer opportunities. As such, they often hitched themselves to a man while they were young. This they did, not because they valued having a life partner more than women today, and not because they were better at finding suitable partners than their contemporary counterparts, but simply because if they hadn’t, they would have faced substantial hardship. Either they would have had to remain at home, inviting scorn as an “old maid” or chosen to live alone and struggle in a job market in which the glass ceiling was low and largely impermeable.

As women’s horizons expanded — something most people find to be positive, but which Ross Douthat apparently still sees as a decidedly mixed bag — they began to delay marriage and childbirth. They had professional options that made working on their careers logical. So too, they gained the ability to hold out for a partner they truly loved and with whom they found themselves compatible.

Unless one wants to return to the days when marriage was transactional, when love played little if any role in matrimony and its only real function was procreation and status signaling, it is hard to view the decline in marriage as a bad thing. Only by severely limiting women’s opportunities and freedom could a cat such as this be put back in the proverbial bag, after all.

AsAs for the presumed link between the marriage decline and baby bust, this too is foolishness. Douthat’s only evidence for the claim is data from the Institute for Family Studies, which demonstrates that although fertility rates have dropped dramatically for unmarried women, they have been trending up for married couples.

Thus, in Douthat’s mind, if more people would get married, they would join in that trend of baby-making, and perhaps the birth rates would climb sufficiently to meet replacement level again. That, in turn, would be good for the economy because if we aren’t making enough children, there won’t be enough people to work in the future as the population grows older. So resisting the left’s war on marriage will save the economy by helping assure a workforce in decades to come.

Mmmm-k. Couple of things.

First, the fact that Douthat blows through the statistic about declining birth rates among single women is revealing. For years the right has warned us about irresponsible unwed women — especially the black ones — who are reproducing at breakneck speed, thanks to a culture of poverty or something to that effect. But what the data makes clear is that this presumed cultural tendency is a myth. Unmarried black women have been making precisely the choice that conservatives would insist is the responsible one. Indeed, among unmarried black women, fertility rates have plummeted 42% since 1970.

Married couples don’t want all those kids anymore, and all the moral panic columns by traditional Catholics like Ross Douthat won’t change that.

Before going further, perhaps Douthat and other commentators on the right could spare some of their precious column inches to point this out to a readership that likely still believes — as Bill O’Reilly suggested a few years back — that black 14-year-olds regularly have children. Because there were actually only 554 kids born to black girls under 15 in the entire nation last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a percentage of all 552,000 black kids born in 2018, that would represent one-tenth of 1% of all such births. And as a share of black girls between the ages of 10 and 14 (about 1.5 million in all), that would be fewer than four one-hundredths of 1% of them who gave birth last year.

But ya know, conservative feelings don’t care about your facts.

Second, Douthat should really use Google when he’s relying on statistics to make his case. Because the chart upon which he relies for his claim that there has been an increase in fertility among married women — and thus, marriage is the key to reversing the baby bust — is wrong. Or rather, it’s correct so far as it goes, but that’s the problem: it only goes up to 2016. Although there was a short-term bump in the fertility rate among married couples from 2010 to 2016, from 84.3 births per 1,000 married women to 89.6 such births, more recent numbers torpedo his claim.

To wit, the CDC released figures last week (while Douthat was probably writing his column but well before he filed it), demonstrating that the trend has reversed, and even married couples are having fewer kids again — back down to 85.6 births per 1000 married women. That’s functionally the same place they were a decade ago, 45% lower than in 1960 and nearly a third lower than in 1970, which was the last year births were adequate to meet the demographic replacement rate.

In short, there is no marriage-based solution to the decline in fertility because birth rates for married couples will never come close to where they were 50 years ago. Married couples don’t want all those kids anymore, and all the moral panic columns by traditional Catholics like Ross Douthat won’t change that. Folks are going to use birth control methods more guaranteed than the calendar, Ross. Get over it.

TThe fact is, fertility rates have declined for the same reasons as marriage rates. Expanded opportunities for women typically result in delayed childbirth, even for those who decide to become mothers. This delay then results in such women having fewer children, on average, because it narrows the fertility window for those who opt to bear kids.

Additionally, as the population ages — especially for white folks, whose median age is now around 43 — fertility will decline because older folks have fewer kids than younger ones. And of course, economic concerns about the cost of childrearing dissuade millions of young people from starting families the way they might have in prior generations when the cost burdens of everything from health care to education to housing were less.

Everything the Trumpian ethno-nationalist far-right would do as a matter of policy will only intensify the problems posed by a drop in birth rates.

Although the decline in fertility poses challenges for the economy in years to come, here too, the only solutions to the problem are typically those supported by the left: universal health care, affordable housing, and higher ed, and yes, liberal immigration policies.

Indeed, it may only be the influx of migrants that can sustain the economy in coming decades as the native-born population ages. Currently, the median age for Latinx folks in the United States is around 30, and likely even younger for undocumented migrants. As the majority of the population grows older and the labor market demands younger workers, restrictionist policies favored by the right will only choke off this vital engine of future growth and productivity while also magnifying the economic impact of the native-born birth dearth.

In the final analysis, almost everything the “respectable” right says about marriage and fertility is wrong, and everything the Trumpian ethno-nationalist far-right would do as a matter of policy will only intensify the problems posed by a drop in birth rates. In other words, to whatever extent one can do anything about this mostly manufactured crisis, it is only the left whose proposals offer a way out.

Even I’m smart enough to know that, and I barely cracked 1000 on my SAT.

I’m an antiracism educator/author. My latest book is Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020). I post audio at patreon.com/speakoutwithtimwise

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