Friday, November 25, 2011

"Family Values" and the Crisis of the Welfare State


In 1995 I wrote a small book, Exploding Population Myths, the purpose of which was to debunk the very popular theory that the world was grossly overpopulated and headed toward disaster. I believe the evidence was compelling then, and now, 16 years later, the case is actually stronger than ever. If the book had a flaw, it was that I, considered an optimist, was too pessimistic.

The book debunked claims of catastrophists of the day, all predicting doom and gloom with spiraling birth rates, resource depletion, and population growing with no end in sight. I showed that the reality was that the world was not overpopulated in any meaningful sense of the word; that population concentrations are not the same thing as overpopulated; that birth rates were actually plummeting at great rates, and that it was only a matter of decades before world population would begin declining. The main force for growing populations, as I noted, wasn’t the birth rate, so much as the much applauded decline in death rates.
The political Left hated the book and the Right loved it. Now, oddly, I find some extremists on the Religious Right trying to whip up fear and doom over the very pattern I had shown: declining birth rates.
 Janice Crouse is a spokesman—I use the term intentionally as I’m sure she is offended by feminist values—for the Concerned Women of America, a fundamentalist political group. She lists a lot of political material about herself, but, while she touts herself as “Dr. Crouse,” leaves out exactly how she got a doctorate and in what field. The only credentials she mentions are her conservative credentials and writing for Right-wing organizations. Even her own website biography neglects to offer this information. She did work at a Christian college as a debate coach, but that doesn’t say very much. All I can find is she graduated from a Wesleyian-Holiness college in 1961, and then went on to another fundamentalist university.
What drew my attention to Crouse, was a recent piece she wrote in which she seemed to insinuate that population declines in Europe were do to the result of the much exaggerated “death of the family.” Crouse lamented:

...economies aren’t the only things shrinking; unfortunately, their populations are also on the decline.  The future looks bleak for these countries that are undoubtedly facing demographic time bombs, with dismal fertility rates and an increase in the so-called old-age dependency ratio (OADR), which means, “fewer working-age people to pay for the health and pension benefits of a growing older population.”  Of the PIIGS [Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain], Ireland has the brightest fertility outlook, with total fertility measured at 2.1 (children per woman) and Greece, following at 1.5.  Italy, Portugal, and Spain all have fertility rates of 1.4 children per woman, which is a growing concern in terms of exasperating (sic) the old-age dependency ratio. [Note: apparently her Holiness university didn’t teach her the difference between exasperating—to annoy greatly—and exacerbating—to increase in severity.]
Throughout the years, what we have learned, to our sorrow, is that the consequences of the decline in marriage and breakdown of the family have not only negatively affected generations of individuals on a personal level, the decline of marriage has undermined social institutions and shaken the stability and economic viability of nations.

U.S. Fertility Rates since 1800
The facts are technically correct, but they aren’t related to “decline of the family” or the evolution of marriage.  Let’s first note where she is correct. Populations in Europe have been in decline, as have been birth rates. This has been going on for a very long time indeed and the decline we are witness to is NOT new. Thus, changes in the last few decades are not responsible for trends of well over a century. In other words, correlation is not causation. Perhaps if  Crouse had gone to a real university, instead of one based on theology, she might have learned that.  (See the chart on the right for the long trend in U.S. fertility rates showing quite clearly that the trend Crouse laments has been going on for two centuries. Source)
She is also correct that Europe faces a demographic time bomb. It started when short-sighted governments created welfare states using the premise that populations would increase forever. The time bomb started ticking practically the day the first welfare state was created. As long as babies were being born faster than old people were collecting benefits, the system was safe. However, from early on this wasn’t the case. First, old people started living longer and longer, meaning their numbers started accumulating and doing so quickly. Old people are the fastest growing population group in the world. Secondly, birth rates had been in steady decline ever since nations went through the Industrial Revolution. As nations became prosperous, birth rates plummeted.

The welfare state relied on a large number of workers funding a small number of recipients, but the numbers of recipients were growing, while the number of workers, in relation to recipients, was in steady decline. “Optimists” on overpopulation, such as Julian Simon and I, were warning people that the welfare state was headed for disaster.
In 2003 I wrote, “This huge drop in birth rates, coupled with longer life spans, spells disaster for the welfare states of the world, especially for programs that support the elderly.” I warned:


What is even more troublesome is that these trends are most pronounced in the welfare states. Sweden will see its elderly (60-plus) increase from the current 22 percent of the population to 33 percent, while the percentage of children (up to 14) will be just over 15 percent. Just 51 percent of the 2050 population will be of working age (15–59), and many will not be employed. A minority of the population (subtracting the unemployed) will be trying to support a majority. In the United Kingdom the percentage of elderly will increase from 21 percent to 30 percent. In Slovenia only 45.6 percent of the population will be of working age. The rest will either be elderly or children. In New Zealand the over-60 crowd will almost double—from 15.7 percent to 29 percent. Children under 15 will comprise just 16.3 percent.
…Like a pyramid scheme, in a welfare state the number of payers has to grow faster than the number of recipients. As long as that happens the illusion that the system works can be maintained. But current trends indicate that the opposite is happening. UN projections for the developed world, where most welfare states are, show that the working-age group will see its numbers shrink by 0.32 percent per year. In the same countries, however, those over 60 will see their numbers grow by 2.29 percent per year and those over 80 will grow by 3.39 percent.
My 2003 warnings were not based on any evidence showing “decline in marriage and breakdown in the family,” but rather on decades worth of data showing that in nation after nation prosperity brings a decline in birth rates. In a pre-prosperous, pre-capitalist society, birth rates are high but balanced out by high death rates. The “natural” state of affairs is one where deaths are significantly high and as a result, so are births. Because physical labor is the main means of wealth production, having children was a cheap means of gaining “capital.” For the poor, children were labor and a future retirement program, however, since infant mortality was so high, and death rates for adults were so high, the only means of making sure enough children survived was to have lots of babies.
In the early stages of an advanced economy, high levels of wealth resulted in greater levels of education, advances in sanitation and medicine, reduction of famine and disease, and a safer world in general. The result was that death rates started dropping dramatically. It took time before the greater guarantees of living to adulthood took hold and birth rates started to plummet as well.
All of this was well over a century ago; it all started well before the social changes religious conservatives whine about. The decline in birth rates is not the fault of “the decline in marriage and breakdown of the family.” If you want to blame lower birthrates on anything—if you believe that is a problem—then don’t blame gay marriage or divorce. The real causes are interrelated to one another: capitalism, economic development and prosperity, advances in birth control, higher levels of education for women, equality of rights for women, and other logical outcomes of liberal capitalism.  Perhaps Crouse wishes to return to the days when woman were having six children, instead of just under two, but most women, concerned or otherwise, don’t.

Considering the emphasis groups such as Concerned Women for America put on same-sex marriage, I thought it useful to check birth rates in nations at the time they instituted marriage equality and compare them to today. Has there been a difference in trends already in place?
Canada’s first same-sex marriage was in 2001. The total fertility rate at the time was 1.51 children per woman. After eight years of same-sex marriage, birth rates saw an increase to 1.7 children, but this is around where they were 10 years before marriage equality, so there was no significant change. Belgium legalized same-sex marriage in 2003. Ten years earlier, the TFR was 1.6. The last statistic the World Bank has on TFR is for 2009, when it was 1.8. After same-sex marriage, birth rates in Belgium increased. The Netherlands first started looking into marriage equality in 1995 and eventually passed a law in 2000. Ten years prior, in 1990, the TFR was 1.6. It stood at 1.7 in 1995 and today it is 1.8, so birth rates increased in the Netherlands since marriage equality.
The reality is that most “welfare states” still don’t have marriage equality. Those that do, such as Norway and Sweden implemented those policies very recently; 2008 for Norway and 2009 for Sweden—much too soon to make any legitimate pronouncements. The earliest Scandinavian state to come close to marriage equality was Denmark, which created “registered partnerships” in 1989. At that time the TFG was 1.7, after 20 years of gay partnerships the TFR rate stood at 1.8. 

These facts are even clearer when we look at the nations Crouse singles out,
Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain. In Portugal same-sex marriage has only been legal for one year—hardly long enough to be responsible for anything and too soon for any statistics to be available. In Ireland same-sex marriage is not yet legal, nor is the crisis in Ireland due to total fertility rate since its TFR is on par with that of the United States: 2.1. In Italy same-sex marriage is not legal and thus not related to their economic woes. In fact, in the last few years Italy has had a very slight increase in the TFR, from 1.3 to 1.4. The economic crisis in Greece is unrelated to marriage equality since there isn’t any. Spain did legalize same-sex marriage in 2005. Ten years prior the TFR was 1.2. By 2009 it had increased to 1.4. In fact, most of the nations that implemented marriage equality saw slight increases in their birth rates, not declines.
Yes, the welfare states face demographic disasters. They do so because birth rates are not high enough to cover the costs of extended life spans. But these two demographic trends predate any of the policies that the Religious Right blames for the “crisis of the family.” They may lament marriage equality, unmarried mothers, divorce rates, or even welfare, but none can be held responsible for creating the conflicting trends in the welfare state that concern Crouse.
The Welfare States were largely constructed by short-sighted politicians during the short-lived “baby boom” that followed World War II. They assumed birth rates of their day were a given and that a growing workforce would be able to sustain the welfare programs they planned. That they foolishly assumed a perpetual baby boom is the reason these welfare states face not a crisis. It has nothing little to nothing to with family values.
Note: All data concerning TFRs for the various nations is sourced from the World Bank.

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