The Fall of the Traditional American Family

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On today’s edition of Coffee and Markets , Brad Jackson and Ben Domenech are joined by Jonathan Last to discuss the decline of married couples in the U.S., how the advent of the pill has harmed our birth rates and what this all portends for our nation’s future.


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Married Couples Are No Longer a Majority, Census Finds
America’s One-Child Policy
Census reveals plummeting U.S. birthrates
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Jonathan Last at the Weekly Standard

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Interview with Jonathan Last
June 9, 2011

Jackson: On the show today, the one and only Jonathan Last is here. We’ll discuss the decline of married couples in the US, how the advent of the pill has harmed our birth rates, and what this all portends for our nation’s future. I’m your host, Brad Jackson and you’re listening to the June 9, 2011 edition of Coffee and Markets.

Domenech: I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about this report that came out in the New York Times about married couples. It seems to me that there’s sort of an interesting trend line here in looking at the Census Bureau reports which basically frame a picture of America as being at a real transition point, in terms of married couples no longer being a majority.

I wonder if you could talk to us a little bit about what you think that is going to mean in terms of the long term social effects, and also just if that’s a significant point. If it marks something that is sort of Americans taking one fork in the road.

Last: Well I, so this is a, it’s actually a big problem. I think I can say “problem” as opposed to a sort of a, you know, “fork in the road” reasonably, tentatively, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But it’s a complicated problem, and so what we see right now about the decline in rates of people who are married is actually like the fourth car in a four car pileup that began around 1960.

So, I’ll just sketch it out for you in the 30 second version. First, we had the birth control pill which comes on the market in 1960, I think. This does a bunch of things. It pushes up the average age of first sexual experience for both men and women, I’m sorry. By “push up”, I mean pushes it backwards so that they’re younger. That then pushes upwards in terms of meaning older the average age of first marriage. And then as a result pushes upwards the average age of first birth. And so what you have essentially, you know, because of the birth control pill you have a world where beginning in 1970 or so, which is when the pill sort of finally finishes saturating the market, people are having sex earlier and then waiting longer to get married, and into this middle vacuum steps cohabitation.

Cohabitation is the fancy demographer term for people shacking up and living together. Cohabitation is something that demographers who tend not to be conservative at all, in fact quite the opposite, view with enormous suspicion. Because cohabitation is like marriage only worse, if you think of things that way. Marriage provides a couple of very good things to people. It helps you be in stable relationships. It helps you live longer. It helps you be happier. It makes you much more economically and socially upwardly mobile. Cohabitations, on the other hand, introduces all sorts of uncertainties. You know, 34% of cohabitation relationships break up within the first year. For couples who cohabitate together, even for five full years, there’s only a 75% chance that they wind up married together, so you could get —


Domenech: Wow.

Last: — you know, a girl and a guy could be living together for five years and still one in four of them aren’t going to get married at the end of the day.

Jackson: That’s surprising.

Last: Yes. So anyway, I swear I’m getting to the marriage point. Where cohabitation comes to us from, however, we have this picture I think in our minds that cohabitation is something that comes out of the ‘60s, you know. The guys and girls who are going to Ohio State, Kent State, UCLA, and, you know, Stanford in the 1960s they come out of college and they are radicalized by, you know, the ‘60s generation. They decide, you know what, we’re going to stick it to the man. We’re not going to live by the old rules. We’re not going to get married. And we think of cohabitation, I think, as a progressive, you know, alternative to marriage being born of liberalism. It turns out that that’s not true.

Cohabitation has been prevalent in the US since the early 1900s, but it was always prevalent among the lower classes. Cohabitation was something that very poor and uneducated people did. This grew through the ‘30s and ‘40s and then beginning in the ‘50s cohabitation really blew up among the underclass. And as cohabitation grew among the underclass it then gradually spread and became something that the lower middle class did and then something that the middle-middle class, middle-middle class being loosely defined as people with a high school education and a little bit of college, but not a full college degree.

Domenech: Now, if I could just interject. That seems so counter-intuitive, because we think of the whole approach. This as being a top down liberal elite’s approach to sort of a secularization of the approach to relationships. In fact, you’re telling us that that’s not the case.

Last: Right. It’s absolutely counter-intuitive. Almost nobody except for people who actually studied tomography realizes this. And so what you have —

Domenech: Which means nobody who actually comments on it from the, yes.

Last: And so what you have now is this weird bifurcated world in which poor people and people who are moderately educated, which is quite a lot of the country. And you don’t realize this, but only 30% of the country actually has a bachelor’s degree or more. So, the vast middle and lower half of the country has enormous rates of cohabitation, very, very low rates of marriage right now, and then all the sort of, the bad things that come with that. You know, the difficulty in moving upwardly, economically and all that.

But among the elite, people who, you know, go to college and graduate from it, that upper 30%, right now they’re doing better with marriage then they ever have been. And so you would think that this is, you know, again, by the popular conception that these would be the people who would be turning away from marriage, it’s not true. People who go to college and graduate from college now get married at a higher rate than they did 30 years ago. They stay married longer than they did 30 years ago and they tend to be happier in their marriages than they were 30 years ago.


Jackson: But do they, don’t they get married later than they used to be?

Last: Yes. They get married later and they have fewer kids which is the other, that’s my obsession is the fertility rates is just how I come to all this. And so that’s the other thing that gets pushed back out of all of this. You know, if you don’t start getting married until later in life, and you don’t start trying to have kids until later, you wind up with fewer kids at the end of the day. Because despite what Lifetime television will tell you, your chance of having a kid after 35 are actually pretty low.

Domenech: You know, it’s one of these interesting sort of trend lines, for me, because it’s so anti-Darwinian. You know, the prediction should be, you know, you have greater economic success, you have more food, you have more availability of resources, you should have more children. And yet for every nation that comes to this point the problem is one of a downturn in child birth.

I wonder if you could tell us about some of the historical examples maybe that are out there for nations that have gone through similar circumstances to what’s facing the United States right now.

Last: Well, you’ve seen crashing fertility rates different places throughout history. You saw them right around the time of the decline of the Roman Empire actually. You don’t have hard numbers but you have anecdotal accounts from Polybius (phonetic sp.) and other historians. You have all sorts of really interesting things happening. You mentioned the anti-Darwinian stuff. I’m writing a book on all this, I just finished a chapter dealing with Margaret Sanger (phonetic sp.) who is a hysterical figure in sort of this funny and tragic in equal turns. So, she is the mother of the birth control pill through an accident of history. But her entire impulse for tamping down fertility, and for birth control, and for abortion, was to keep the lower classes from having kids. You know, she said she wanted more babies from the elites and fewer babies from, you know, the poor but which she really meant minorities. Black people. People living in Africa. People living in Asia. The left of course is completely ignorant of all this these days. But this is yet one more case where unintended consequences flip around and it winds up going the opposite way.

When you look at pill usage in America today the women who use the pill tend not to be lower classes. They tend to not be minorities. They tend to be mostly college educated White women. And so, you know, again you have this anti-Darwinian thing happening where the people who are, you know, most successful in the Darwinian sense of the word, wind up not having the kids. Hence this is a larger argument, but the very active not having kids leads to Darwinian success because kids are so damn expensive.

Domenech: Yes. Yes. And it’s interesting to me too because you talk about the role of, of how this changes the role of women in society. Catherine Miller and I are working on an essay about how Anthony Weiner’s recent experiences are, should serve as sort of the apotheosis of the shift that’s occurred within the way that people have relationships. You know, the fact that you can have, you know, sexual scandals in which there is no actual knowledge or meeting of the other person, you know, is a major transition point in terms of, you know, the direction that the country is going. And it allows for not just, I would say, a shift in the attributes that you see as advantageous in a potential spouse, but also in having a major difference in the way that men live their lives and how long they can avoid the essence of adulthood and responsibility in the thriving of what are, you know, sort of shallowly referred to as beta males and things of that nature. So, there’s a whole raft of stuff that comes out of this.


I guess the question that I would have for you is from a policy perspective. What do you think can be done from, you know, a governmental approach to addressing this problem? And you do, I think, make a good case that it is a problem. I wonder if you could explain if there’s anything that the government can do, you know, in a way of altering this or altering the course of the country in the immediate.

Last: You know, the scary answer is there might not be anything. Goodness knows governments of all sorts of different stripes have been trying to monkey with this stuff for a very long time. The Roman Empire actually tried to get guys to get married and have kids. They passed a bachelor tax that did not work. The Soviet Union had all sorts of pulleys, and levers, and carrots, and sticks involved to try to get Russian women and men to get married earlier and have more kids. That did not work during the, you know, 80 year history, or maybe 60 year history of the Soviet Union. And there may not be anything we can do either. I don’t know that that means we shouldn’t try though.

One of the things you have right now I think is a situation where the way our society and, the government part of our society has an established system where they’ve created barriers to having kids. Artificial barriers by which I mean, Social Security and, you know, the Medicare tax. The way the tax structure is set up right now if you have a couple, you know, a man and a woman each making $50,000 a year and they cohabitate, they each pay taxes on, you know, $50,000 at the $50,000 tax rate. If they get married all of a sudden they’re paying taxes at the $100,000 tax rate. This is the real marriage penalty.

Do you remember Congress eliminated the fake marriage penalty which was like $400 or $600 a year trick of the Tax Code a few years ago? That actually ignores the larger problem which is that it makes more sense, just from a tax perspective, to be cohabitating and not marrying. So, there are different ways in which governments might be able to try to, not to encourage marriage, not encourage child bearing, but look at what they’ve been doing and try to remove the artificial impediments that they’ve erected to it.

The Social Security is, you know, the famous example of this, because the Social Security basically steps in to do what children have historically done. Historically children take care of their parents when their parents get old. That’s one of the reasons parents have them, even though they’re enormous pains in the asses. But instead what you have is a system set up whereby if you and your wife go and have kids and I don’t have kids, your kids will take care of you and the taxes your kids pay once they are working adults, will then go to me to take care of me as well. And so I get to sort of free ride on the system without having to incur any of the costs of, you know, creating new workers, by which I mean raising children.

Domenech: I actually just interject that this is why Pethokoukis who is a friend of the show and has come on a couple of times, that the real solution to the entitlement crash is for more people to be like him. He has seven children. His immediate response to me was to say, yes. I shouldn’t be paying these dang Social Security taxes.


Last: Yes. And this is, you know, some governments have done this. What they’ve done is they have ratcheted back your tax rates with each increasing kid. So, you know, you have one kid nothing changes. You have two kids and, you know, you get the 30% reduction on basically whatever your, you know, your welfare state tax is, depending on what country you’re in. And then as you get to a third kid it ratchets back even further. The real scary thing is that it may be that none of this works. Now, this is a big debate, nobody actually has a real answer. I surely don’t have the real answer. And it may be that for every country the answer is different. You know, something that doesn’t work in Sampora (phonetic sp.) might work here. Something that works here may not work in Sweden. You have to be careful not to draw too universal a conclusion for anything because, you know, there’s a finite number of countries here with all different cultures. You know, results in one don’t necessarily translate to another. But the really scary case is Singapore. Singapore, do you have time to sort of talk for two minutes about Singapore or is that a —

Domenech: Sure.

Jackson: Yes.

Last: So, Singapore began modernizing in late, in the mid ‘60s. And they embarked on a China style one child policy because China, before China had a policy to stop people from having kids because they thought fertility was what was keeping them poor and they wanted to get industrialized and rich really quickly. So, they did a really eugenic, you know, forced sterilizations, increased taxes on people who had more than one kid, that sort of thing. And their program was fantastically effectively. And within seven years their fertility rate was down by 60% and they realized dear God, we’ve made a huge mistake. So, they saw their fertility rates collapsing so quickly that they threw all the machinery into reverse and for now coming on 20 years they have been trying desperately to get people to have more kids. They have, they hand out a full year of paid maternity leave. They give you a $10,000 bonus just for having the baby, each time you have the baby. They have what is essentially a 401k plan for kids where you put away money for your kid’s expenses every year and the government matches it for you. So, it’s a combination of like a 401k plus flex spending. In Singapore the government controls all housing allocation. And so if you have kids you get access to better housing. And in fact if you have more than a couple kids they will make sure that your grandparents get to live near you so that you have, you know, convenience and free child care. This is the stuff, the types of things that like neonatalist crazies like me, you know, have randy dreams about.

Jackson: So Jonathan, essentially you’re saying that I need to move to Singapore before I have my first son in a few months.

Last: Yes. But you know, it’s a hell of a lot easier to have kids if you have them over in Singapore. But the scary thing is that they’ve done all this for 20 years. All that’s happened is that their fertility rates has continued to drop further, and further, and further, and further. And it stands right now at about 1.3 which is about as low as any country has ever recorded a fertility rate in the history of the world. So, like I said, the truth is anybody who has not had kids understands how great life can be when you do not have children. It’s only once you go and have the kids that you realize how great your previous life was and you can never have that again. But in societies, once it becomes common for people to not have kids, for people to be child free and they get to see what that really means to their lifestyle, it becomes very hard to convince them to take the enormous hit and actually go around, get around to having kids.


Brian Kaplan (phonetic sp.) who is an economist over at George Mason just wrote a book about this a month or two ago, which is his economic case of why you should have more kids because it isn’t as terrible as you think. And you know, there’s a lot of fun and pleasure to be had about it, and blah, blah, blah. Brian is a great guy, his book is great. I’m not trying to impugn any of that, but I merely would like to say that as a parent of two young kids myself, while it may be true that he says that the cost of kids isn’t as high as we think it is, it’s awfully high.

(Commercial break)

Jackson: Jonathan, let me ask this. We had a show several weeks ago where we were talking about the effect of the, of Facebook and Twitter and stuff on this next generation and how it’s affected their emotions and relationships. And it seems from their perspective dating is something completely different and almost void in their modern world. And I think that’s going to change even more how they, how they have kids moving forward. Do you think that’s right?

Last: You know, I don’t know. I think it’s a really interesting question. You know, we’ve gone from like, you know, the Charlotte Simon’s (phonetic sp.) generation 10 years ago to, you know, the Facebook Weiner generation. Or really, who knows, with the kids these days, who knows what they’re up to. One of the things that’s been interesting to track are their —

Domenech: With their music and their dancing.

Last: — with their loud music and their —

Jackson: Their video games.

Last: — and their videogames on the inter tubes. Yeah. One of the things that’s interesting is watching the numbers on desired fertility. One of the metric demographer’s track is how many kids people say they want to have before they start having kids. And then measuring up what their sort of completed actually fertility is, you know, against that later on. And among the cohort, which is now in, you know, prime marrying reproductive age, people who are slightly younger than myself, the desired fertility numbers are up a little bit from where they were 20, 30 years ago. That is –

Jackson: What is that number? I’m just inquisitive. You know, my wife and I are about to have our first kid. We’d like to have three or four. Do you think we’ll actually reach that number?

Last: You know what, you’ll reach whatever number is right for you. I think the desired fertility number right now is something like 2.3. I’d have to go and look at it. What you traditionally find is that actual fertility almost never hits desired fertility, because all sorts of things happen. Life gets in the way. People are not as fertile as they wish they could be. People don’t have accidents, you know, as often as they used to. What I will tell you is that again, you have to drill down on all these stats.

And there are a bunch of things which affect how many kids you’re going to have. You know, one of which is education. One of which is marital status. One of which is, this is actually very interesting, religion, but it does not matter what your denomination is. All that matters is how often you attend services. And so there is almost no difference in the fertility numbers for say a Jew, a Protestant, and a Catholic. The real differences are between say a Catholic who goes to church once a week and a Catholic who goes to church, you know, three times a year.


Jackson: That’s fascinating.

Last: Yes. If you’re a real stater, there’s a lot of interesting things to find in this world. As to four kids I would say, God bless you and good luck. We’re at two and who knows what will happen, but sometimes I think you know what, one would be enough. I’ll (unintelligible) somebody else and –

Domenech: Well, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us about this Jonathan. It’s a fascinating issue and we appreciate it.

Last: It’s always good to talk to you.


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