Home Front

American Birthrates: Quantity v. Quality

October 10, 2012

Multiple Pages
American Birthrates: Quantity v. Quality

We live in an age, we are often informed, of Big Data. Every facet of life is collected, counted, and analyzed carefully: baseball statistics, Twitter trends, and even Google searches regarding which celebrities are gay.

On the other hand, there are all sorts of numbers that we’re not supposed to ponder.

Consider that we’ve all noticed that the concepts of quantity and quality form a useful pair to keep in mind.

And it’s hard not to notice births. Being born is important.

So what could be more obviously important to America’s future than the quantity and quality of births?

And yet while newspapers run routine articles on the quantity of births, there is negligible coverage of the quality.

On the face of it, this is rather strange because most other aspects of 21st-century American culture are obsessed with quality over quantity. Tiger Mothers, for instance, aren’t impressed that Arizona State has more students than Princeton. Nor does anybody win at fantasy football by having the most players on their roster.

Yet most articles about birthrates adopt an intellectual stance appropriate for, say, the Toilet Paper Manufacturers Association: As with opinions, everybody’s got one, so the more the better. More toilet-paper consumption is good for the economy, and that’s all you need to know.

“Illegitimate births are bad for the Republican Party.”

One irony is that the quality of births has perhaps been improving during Barack Obama’s tenure. At minimum, quality has not been in a free fall as it was during George W. Bush’s disastrous second administration. But not only can’t Obama mention this on the campaign trail, he probably can’t even formulate the idea without his head exploding.

You may object that a term such as “quality” can’t be applied to a poor, innocent baby. All babies are created equal, just as more disposable-diaper sales are good for the economy.

Yet quality can be specified both from disinterested and partisan viewpoints.

For instance, consider the illegitimacy rate (the percent of children born out of wedlock). There’s ample evidence that kids with single mothers get a poorer start in life than children with two married parents.

The second irony is that the end of the Bush Quality Collapse is good for the GOP because illegitimate births are bad for the Republican Party.

Let me specify a seemingly cynical, self-serving definition of quality from the GOP standpoint: Quality births are those that are likely to lead to more Republican votes, both now and in the next generation. Out-of-wedlock births tend to leave women stranded in Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” and put their children on the fast track for a life of voting for tax-and-spend politicians. Single mothers vote GOP far less than married mothers (just as single men vote Republican less than married men). And their offspring are more likely to grow up on welfare and thus become natural Democrats.

You might think that the Republican brain trust would carefully monitor illegitimacy trends as a serious threat to preserving the GOP’s putative 53 percent. Yet barely anyone on the conservative side has acknowledged how badly this crucial marker went off the rails during the second Bush Administration, much less analyzed how Bush’s policies were complicit.

Back in 1993, in Bill Clinton’s first year in office, the illegitimacy rate was 31.0 percent. After eight years of Clinton’s less than exemplary moral leadership, the rate had reached 33.5 percent.

The country then turned to the more straitlaced George W. Bush. By the end of his second term, however, the illegitimacy rate had soared to 41.0 percent.

Under Obama, the illegitimacy rate declined marginally in both 2010 and in the newly released 2011 preliminary data. It’s only down to 40.7 percent, so there’s little cause for celebration. Nevertheless, after the appalling increase during Bush’s second term, we must be grateful for small favors.

Is this tiny improvement due to the sterling example of domestic morality set by the Democratic president compared to the Republican Lothario? No. Both Obama and Bush appear to have led similar family lives.

Are these contrasting trends due to specific Obama Administration policies aimed at preventing illegitimacy? Probably not. If you read the federal government’s statistical reports on births, you can see that the state has targeted the problem of teen births, not single births. The government’s policy of opposing teen births seems to be succeeding. The teen birth rate has been falling for most of the last two decades.

In contrast, the federal documents are scrupulously neutral on whether births within or without marriage are better. But this is not a liberal innovation of the Obama years, either. These reports were agnostic on “nonmarital births” during the Bush Administration, too.

Back in 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan submitted a memo to LBJ pointing out that the black illegitimacy rate was an alarming 22 percent. Merely for mentioning this, Moynihan was widely denounced. By 2011, the white rate was 29.1 percent, while blacks were up to 72.3 percent. Most worrisome, however, the fastest growing group, Latinos, whom Republican publicists have long described as family-values conservatives, saw 53.3 percent of their children born out of wedlock.

So what happened under Bush to undermine American family values?

My best approximation is that Bush’s housing boom and lack of immigration enforcement interacted in complex ways that were disastrous to the Republican Party’s short- and long-term health.

One insight is found in the opening scene of the Bush Era’s signature film, Idiocracy. Sitting next to her husband Trevor (138 IQ), Carol (141 IQ) explains, “There’s no way we could have a child now, not with the market the way it is.” Meanwhile, Clevon (84 IQ) has impregnated much of his trailer park.

When home prices increase much faster than income, the prudent abstain from family formation. In contrast, the spurious prosperity of a debt bubble appears to ignite the animal spirits of the less thoughtful.

Several factors, such as Alan Greenspan’s lowering interest rates after 9/11, drove up home prices. But a particularly gratuitous blow to affordable family formation was Bush’s 2002-2004 campaign denouncing federal mortgage regulators’ traditional bias against zero-down-payment mortgages as racially unjust. He kicked off this crusade in the name of racial equality at his 2002 White House Conference on Increasing Minority Homeownership.

The increase in demand drove up prices, which allowed homeowners to take cash out to spend on after-market rims for their Hummers, and it sucked in construction workers from south of the border. Bush lit this fire under the housing market, so perhaps we should call his second term’s pseudo-prosperity the “Bushlit Economy.”

Immigration’s full role in causing the resulting Hispanic baby boom was not well explicated until the 2010 study by Emilio A. Parrado of the University of Pennsylvania’s Population Studies Center: How High is Hispanic/Mexican Fertility in the U.S.? Immigration and Tempo Considerations. Parrado pointed out that fertility is exceptionally high among new immigrants from Latin America, and then it declines over the decades.

This implies that people who can’t afford to have as many children as they want in their own country move to America to have more.

The year 2006, at the peak of the housing bubble, was remarkably deleterious for the GOP’s future. Despite seeming prosperity, the total number of births to married white women dropped 0.4% from 2005, while unmarried Hispanic women had 9.6% more children.

Parrado’s model explains the sharp decline in Latino fertility as the construction-jobs magnet deteriorated. The total fertility rate (expected children per lifetime) of Hispanic women rose steadily during the Bush Bubble but has been plummeting under Obama.

For Republicans, immigration is a double whammy: If the immigrants naturalize, they are likely to vote Democratic for tribal and self-interested economic reasons. And they are also likely to quickly give birth to numerous future Democratic voters/anchor babies. 

But this dual process also works in reverse: Cutting immigration also cuts fertility among those likely to vote against your party.

Thank God for the recession. What’s not to like? I mean, other than the lower toilet-paper sales?


Daily updates with TM’s latest