Arnold Kling  

European Demographics

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Another Milken Institute Review article is on aging Europe. I am pretty familiar with the low birth rate and its implications for the size and age distribution of Europe's population. However, this was news to me:


few Americans seem aware of just how rapidly the functional definition of the family is changing in modern Europe...the odds of a woman’s being married and staying married to age 50 are only about 40 percent in staid Portugal, under 22 percent in bourgeois Belgium, and as low as 20 percent in some of the old Communist bloc countries.
By the same token, out-of-wedlock births are increasingly common. Whereas nearly one-in-three American babies is an extramarital birth, the corresponding fraction in Britain is over two-fifths...More than a quarter of Portugal’s babies are born to unmarried women, while in Austria, Ireland and Hungary the share is now above 30 percent, and in France the figure is just under 44 percent. The corresponding number for America’s non-Hispanic whites is about 23 percent.

For Discussion. What economic factors might account for the breakdown of the traditional family?


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TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/246
The author at Isaac Schrödinger in a related article titled Damn writes:
    A link via Arnold Kling:More than a quarter of Portugal’s babies are born to unmarried women, while in Austria, Ireland [Tracked on April 29, 2005 9:51 PM]
COMMENTS (29 to date)
Randy writes:

Factors;

1. Desire. The family structure was always more necessary than fun for a great many people.

2. Possibility. Prosperity has created a world in which relatively light work and shorter hours make it possible for one person to both earn a living and raise a family.

3. Social Support. Welfare, Social Security, liberal divorce laws, greater mobility; again, all created by prosperity, which add to the possibility at the margin.

Franco writes:

So the ranking of out-of-wedlock births by country is:

France ( 40%)
US ( 30%)
Portugal (> 25%)

(Also Non-hispanic US whites (23%), though no similar numbers are offered for Europe.)

So what's so special about Europe? The US is 3rd out of 7 on this list. Admittedly the leaders are big and lead by a lot, but on the other hand Germany is conspicuously absent.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

The real breakdown of the Family system has been the switch to Two-Income households. This was brought about by the loss of Wage purchasing power between 1970-1990. This places vast pressure on the Family unit: two sets of Friends to meet social obligations, Children left to Child Care and generated Social activities, and schizophrenia in sexual contacts. lgl

David Thomson writes:

Wow, now I know what it feels like to be Barry Bonds waiting for a slow pitch over the plate. I’ll make it real simple for everybody. The number one reason for increasing illegitimacy rates in both the United States and Europe is the welfare system. Every other reason, including the sexual revolution, are a distant second at best. These women know that they will be supported by the state. The man who got them pregnant is not required to significantly provide them with money.

Did you want a more complex and “nuanced” response? Well, you ain’t gonna get it from me. I have no interest in overcomplicating something that so relatively easy to comprehend. Let's leave that for the professors who teach at Harvard and our other so-called elite universities.

Scott Schaefer writes:

Mr. Thomson swings ... and it's outta here. A home run.

For those of you who insist on thick tomes of meticulously-researched empirical data to recognize the obvious, I suggest James Bartholemew's The Welfare State We're In, or even Theodore Dalrymple.

David Thomson writes:

“Mr. Thomson swings ... and it's outta here. A home run.”

And I didn’t use any steroids! We cannot lower the illegitimacy rates unless we cease providing financial support to these young ladies. They must be told in no uncertain terms that the child is their responsibility. Either find a job, get money from the father---or find an orphanage. That’s it. End of story. Don’t I sound like a cold and cruel scum bag ? Darn it, I’m just a bad person.

Randy writes:

I agree with Mr. Thompson that welfare is a factor. But it is not the primary factor. At the margins, many people don't want a traditional family. And in the modern world, the traditional family is optional. When we use words like "breakdown" and "decline", we miss the crucial matter of "choice".

Lancelot Finn writes:

Mr. Thompson is mostly right, of course, but one may claim that the policy recommendations he derives from his claims are largely non sequitur.

Another way to put this is that Randy and Mr. Thompson are shadow-boxing as if they disagree, but really they don't. Randy says the traditional family wasn't that popular anyway. Mr. Thompson says that, when welfare opens up the possibility of leaving the traditional family behind, some people take that opportunity-- a similar point.

Mr. Thompson thinks that we should cut welfare in order to shore up the traditional family, but why? Why shouldn't we, instead, subsidize the continuing breakup of the traditional family, if that's what people seem (by "revealed preference") to want?

My argument about social capital is applicable here. It can be demonstrated through game theory that, if we assume a minimal (and realistic) amount of certain forms of altruism such as pity and gratitude, welfare benefits can in fact make their recipients worse off by displacing social capital, i.e. causing "reciprocity games" with others to break down, which would have benefited them more than the welfare would.

David Thomson writes:

“I agree with Mr. Thompson that welfare is a factor. But it is not the primary factor.”

Balderdash. I guess I’m going to have to indulge in a bit of vulgar Marxism: it’s all about the money! Welfare is the primary factor because it takes some of that green stuff to raise a child. These unmarried mothers would think twice about their “choices” if they had to pay the financial consequences. The welfare state let’s them off the hook. You always get more of what you fund.

David Thomson writes:

“Why shouldn't we, instead, subsidize the continuing breakup of the traditional family, if that's what people seem (by "revealed preference") to want?”

When am I going to get a wicked curve ball over the lower part of the plate? Why am I getting all this easy stuff thrown at me? I strongly believe that the nuclear family is indispensable for the survival of Western Civilization. However, a few people disagree with me. In that case---let them fund their own life choices. This, of course, will result in these previously mentioned women taking responsibility for their pregnancies.

Randy writes:

David,

Dude, they're all going foul. Sorry, got lost in the analogy for a minute...

It is about the money - but not primarily the welfare money. Lots of the single "people" raising kids are working to do it. They are able to do this because they can make enough money in a few hours a day (though often in conjunction with child support) to still have time to take care of children. It is prosperity that is producing the money. Welfare is a marginal contributor, but welfare is not possible outside of a prosperous economy.

But again, choice is the driving factor. People can - so they do. Will this destroy western civilization? Perhaps. But then, what is western civilization without choice?

David Thomson writes:

“It is about the money - but not primarily the welfare money.”

Most of these unwed mothers depend on the government for much, if not most, of their financial support. The father often has little money to offer her. This is especially true when it comes to medical assistance. Working at a local Burger King at minimum wage isn’t enough to take care of doctor bills. Very few of these ladies are like the fictional character, Murphy Brown.

Randy writes:

David,

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a big fan of welfare support either. I agree that such choices should be made with one's own money - not the taxpayer's.

Brandon Berg writes:
Why shouldn't we, instead, subsidize the continuing breakup of the traditional family, if that's what people seem (by "revealed preference") to want?

Any subsidy makes sense if you take into account only the preferences of the beneficiaries. Their revealed preferences don't take into account the costs to those who subsidize them.

David Thomson writes:

We also have to make some sharp distinctions when we discuss illegitimacy. I suspect that liberals who frown on “making value judgments” prefer to mess up the data by downplaying the strength of the relationship between the couple. Some unwed mothers will soon enough marry the father. The major problem is the women who barely know the name of the man who got them pregnant. In these situations, I’m sure most of these young ladies inevitably seek governmental assistance. Without that guaranteed help---they would think twice before getting pregnant.

Alizéefan writes:

In Sweden most unmarried mothers (I think ~70%) live with the fathers of their babies, the same is not true in the U.S. and England. Besides, what percentage of single moms in Europe are teenagers—in the U.S. it's pretty high.

Carodozo Bozo writes:

Alizeefan beat me to it.

The "traditional family" may be breaking down, but not at the rate these numbers suggest. It's "marriage", the act of getting married, that's breaking down.

Reason: Secularism.

What's true in Sweden is true in much of Europe. Marriage is being replaced with informal, long-term, cohabitation. The parents raise the children together, they just aren't getting a marriage certificate.

As a libertarian, I approve :)

Bill writes:

Personal anecdotal screed: My mother and father split when I was eight. My wife's mother and father split when she was five. I'm American and she's German. We want to do whatever it takes to stay together and provide a loving and stable home for our future children. Neither of us want our children to suffer the way we did due to our parents' selfish choices. They were selfish jerks, plain and simple. (They've since grown up and stopped acting like spoiled children. My parents have even apologized to me.) Most of my friends from broken homes feel the same way. Those from non-broken homes feel differently. Maybe people like my wife and me just want what they feel they missed? Anyway, I think that people that purposely become single parents are selfish jerks that care more for their own pleasure than the happiness of their children. (I may sound like a religious conservative, but I'm actually a moderate libertarian agnostic.)

Randy writes:

Bill,

I suspect that part of the problem is that the non-traditional family is a fairly recent phenomonon. Its not that non-traditional families can't work, but that the social stigma against not-traditional family causes problems.

Hope you don't mind if I use you as an example (I'll include myself too). You hold it against your parents that they split. Yet it seems obvious from your writings that you are not a member of the underclass. For many years I held things against my parents too, though I come from about as traditional a family as you are likely to find. My point is that the split, being not yet socially acceptable, gives you something to complain about. But finding something to complain about in one's parents is a pretty normal part of growing up.

Cardozo,

I agree, its marriage that's breaking down. In my opinion, the reason that marriage is breaking down is that the government got too heavily involved. Legal changes have made marriage a very high risk proposition for a man. The fact that the legal changes coincided with the women's liberation movement created a double body blow to the institution of marriage - women looking for something new at the same time that the marriage laws tipped heavily against men. So both sides were looking for a way out.

David Thomson writes:

“What's true in Sweden is true in much of Europe. Marriage is being replaced with informal, long-term, cohabitation. The parents raise the children together, they just aren't getting a marriage certificate.”

That’s getting less true as we move into the future. Marriage has often been replaced by “informal, long-term, cohabitation.” Soon afterwards, though, many of these relationships become increasingly temporary. The man and the woman invest less into each other.

This much we know for sure: the statistics show that the French and other Europeans are have fewer children. They are not even coming close to replacing themselves. It seems entirely reasonable to conclude that this is the direct result of these weakening relationships.

Tom West writes:

Mr. Thomson, two things:

(1) I'll reveal my selfishness. I don't *want* to live in a society where people can die of starvation (for example), even if it's for "society's own good". There's good reason's I wouldn't move to the third world, even if *my* living standards were unchanged.

(2) I assume that you'd approve of the consequence of cutting off any welfare support for children: an increased abortion rate, and if people did "come to their senses" and were much more careful, a plunging birth rate that would make even Europe look fecund.

David Thomson writes:

“I don't *want* to live in a society where people can die of starvation”

How does a child starve to death if placed in an orphanage? Your point seems senseless.

“I assume that you'd approve of the consequence of cutting off any welfare support for children: an increased abortion rate, and if people did "come to their senses" and were much more careful, a plunging birth rate that would make even Europe look fecund.”

The abortion rate might climb a little bit, but more of these young ladies would opt for the orphanage. And no, the birth rate would not plunge. The exact opposite seems to occur when people take marriage seriously. In the United States, the Democratic blue states are losing population while the Republican red states are growing. Religious conservatives have more children. Someone humorously remarked that for these couples “four children is the new two.”

Tom West writes:

How does a child starve to death if placed in an orphanage?

I was presuming that lack of support for children on welfare means lack of support for *adults* on welfare. My quote mentioned people, meaning adults, starving. Secondly I think you'd be quite suprised how many women would be willing to try and keep their children despite the risk. Maternal bonds are not so easily broken.

Religious conservatives have more children.

Agreed, but somehow I don't equate cutting back on the support of children of poor families with a sudden increase in religiosity and an increase in marriage. In fact, letting the poor suffer for their own good doesn't seem like something that Jesus would do :-) (if it was in his power to alleviate it...)

dearieme writes:

It's not just welfare, it's tax codes. In Britain my wife and I lived together unmarried for many years, in part because the tax code would have penalised us savagely had we married. We married to raise a family, but that's just our being conservative: financially we'd probably have been better off staying "single". It is endless: the new British funding system for University students gives a big income boost to the divorced and unmarried parents vs the married. Suggestion: the only tax advantage to marriage is probably in avoiding Inheritance Tax - have you got a British chum who would like to see if lots of 70-year-olds are marrying for that reason?

Lancelot Finn writes:

Re: "When am I going to get a wicked curve ball over the lower part of the plate? Why am I getting all this easy stuff thrown at me? I strongly believe that the nuclear family is indispensable for the survival of Western Civilization. However, a few people disagree with me. In that case---let them fund their own life choices. This, of course, will result in these previously mentioned women taking responsibility for their pregnancies."

I'm in favor of the traditional family, too. I'm wary of alternative family arrangements. BUT this point needs to be argued for.

That said, I agree with you, too, in preferring that people have to fund their own life choices. But that's hardly a consensus position: we subsidize college education when this is hardly necessary for survival, we subsidize car driving through providing public roads, we subsidize the arts, we subsidize farmers so they live the agricultural way of life, and so on.

So why not subsidize nontraditional families, if people like them, and if it's a side-effect of preventing people from starving?

It's sometimes worthwhile to offer a position which, though few or none would actually come to its defense, seems to make sense. It's worthwhile because it forces us to re-examine our basic assumptions and defend them. Why is the traditional family so important to the fabric of Western civilization?

dsquared writes:

Yet another data point for (I think) Kieran Healy's observation that the word "wedlock" has no uses at all in the English language except in the context of regressive social policy.

If such a small subsidy can lead to such a massive increase in the production of bastardy, then it is probable that bastardy is a state that is very popular, and its production should continue to be subsidised, more or less whatever Mr Thomson thinks about the "Indispensability" of the nuclear family (I idly note that the explosion of births "out of wedlock" in the USA has not, as a matter of observable fact, led to the sky falling in).

Lancelot Finn writes:

dsquared writes:

I idly note that the explosion of births "out of wedlock" in the USA has not, as a matter of observable fact, led to the sky falling in

Well, no, it hasn't, since "the sky falling" is based on a misconception that the sky is a large object that could fall and crush us, when actually it is merely air and empty space, which cannot "fall." But if "the sky falling in" is meant figuratively, for social disaster of some kind, I wonder what criteria haven't been satisfied already. Out-of-wedlock births are a huge cause of child poverty. They are correlated with crime, low academic achievement, menal health. The collapse in marriage and the explosion of illegitimacy that occurred in the black community, particulaly in the decade 1966-1976, had a catastrophic impact and we've had to struggle mightily to backtrack from that for a generation. When saying that bastardy is popular, you crucially ignore: With whom? For the sake of argument, let's accept the revealed-preference argument that unwed mothers must like having kids. Well, what about the kids? Is bastardy popular among those born into it?

NIcholas Grenier writes:

In the 19th century 40-50% of English, and probably of most other European children born to the working class were out of wedlock. My understanding is that this was typical of much of the history of western civ, as such.
Of course, for many of those families the household involved economic structures like farming that required a traditional family structure, if not a marriage certificate (which was too darned expensive!).
I'm 23 and many of my good friends have grown up in single parent households; I've never perceived any indication of their suffering from this. Perhaps the healthiest family I know consists of an unmarried couple and their 6 year old son. On the other hand, I have seen friends visibly suffer when living with parents that don't get along and with single parents as well. My own parents are, for the most part happilly, together. From what I can tell, being a supportive and effective parent has to do with personal qualities essentially unrelated to economic conditions or marriage. Some selfish assholes get divorced, some stay together, still sucks for the kids either way.

Tom West writes:

Indeed, in Europe I suspect that the correlation between being born out of wedlock and being raised by a single parent is rather low, while in the U.S. it is still rather high.

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