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The American Fertility Crisis
July 25, 2012 2:37 PM   Subscribe

Education, Income, and Fertility in America, and What They Mean for the Future of the Country "Since the average American woman has 2.1 children, you might think we aren't experiencing a national fertility crisis. Unlike some European countries whose futures are threatened by low birth rates, Americans, on average, produce just the right number of future workers, soldiers, and taxpayers to keep our society humming... Two new studies bring the contrasting reproductive profiles of rich and poor women into sharp relief. One, from the Guttmacher Institute, shows that the rates of unplanned pregnancies and births among poor women now dwarf the fertility rates of wealthier women, and finds that the gap between the two groups has widened significantly over the past five years. The other, by the Center for Work-Life Policy, documents rates of childlessness among corporate professional women that are higher than the childlessness rates of some European countries experiencing fertility crises."
posted by bookman117 (102 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Good thing the vast majority of the nation is plunging into poverty. That'll keep the birth rate up!
posted by shakespeherian at 2:46 PM on July 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


"Since the average American woman has 2.1 children, you might think we aren't experiencing a national fertility crisis...."

What is the median, one wonders.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:49 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


...the rates of unplanned pregnancies and births among poor women now dwarf the fertility rates of wealthier women, and finds that the gap between the two groups has widened significantly over the past five years...

Why does this feel like a subtle entreaty to white people to get busy breeding?
posted by Thorzdad at 2:52 PM on July 25, 2012 [18 favorites]


The people who aren't having children better hope that their investments all work out when they retire. Otherwise they are going to have a hard time surviving.
posted by wuwei at 2:53 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Documentary on the subject, 2006: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=icmRCixQrx8
posted by kenlayne at 2:53 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


What tends to happen to the property/money of people who have significant wealth but die childless? Does it get distributed downward or consolidated upwards on the income scale?
posted by BeeDo at 2:54 PM on July 25, 2012


It's almost like you'd have to replace the aging wealthy people by extending opportunity to youthful poor people. Of course, that's just insane, eh?
posted by maxwelton at 2:54 PM on July 25, 2012 [36 favorites]


The thing that strikes me about being in Holland is that kids are everywhere. I see families with three or four kids on a regular basis, apparently as happy as can be. The secret isn't a secret - give women the possibility of having kids without murdering their careers and putting a flame to their degrees, and they will. Do what the USA does and punish women mercilessly for having a kid if they want a serious career? Surprise, fewer kids.
posted by 1adam12 at 2:56 PM on July 25, 2012 [33 favorites]


The people who aren't having children better hope that their investments all work out when they retire. Otherwise they are going to have a hard time surviving.

The people who are having children better hope the same, lest they have a hard time surviving and bankrupt their children while they're at it.
posted by vorfeed at 2:56 PM on July 25, 2012 [17 favorites]


Idiocracy, anyone?
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:58 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


On non-preview, kenlayne beat me to it.
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:59 PM on July 25, 2012


It isn't that Holland has a crazy high fertility rate compared to the US, it's that they have much more child and family friendly urban design and social spaces, so kids become much more visible. In the US we keep those nasty little tykes hidden away, playing indoors.
posted by Forktine at 3:00 PM on July 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


wuwei: "The people who aren't having children better hope that their investments all work out when they retire. Otherwise they are going to have a hard time surviving."

This is absolutely true if you live in an agrarian society where children aren't a huge financial liability.
posted by mullingitover at 3:01 PM on July 25, 2012 [9 favorites]


What tends to happen to the property/money of people who have significant wealth but die childless? Does it get distributed downward or consolidated upwards on the income scale?

The downwards distribution of wealth? And do you believe in dragons and unicorns, too?
posted by Grangousier at 3:01 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


This is the take-home of the article: "The declining fertility of professional women ought to be sounding an alarm, highlighting the extent to which our policies are deeply unfriendly to parents."

Support for families of all classes in North America is terrible.
posted by jb at 3:04 PM on July 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


The thing that strikes me about being in Holland is that kids are everywhere.

The Netherlands' fertility rate is currently right around 1.8. That's up from about 1.5 in the early 1980s but down from north of 3.0 in the early 1960s.

Turns out that when you target most of your social programs at the elderly--I'm looking at you, Social Security and Medicare--it's really hard for people to start families.
posted by valkyryn at 3:05 PM on July 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


> The people who are having children better hope the same, lest they have a hard time surviving and bankrupt their children while they're at it.

I worry that a lot of people will be supporting their unemployed children for most of their lives. Honestly, what do all you parents think your kids will do for a living once what were formerly stable, middle-class white-collar jobs are computerized or automated out of existence, the way formerly stable, middle-class blue-collar jobs were? Both of my parents' careers have effectively ceased to exist, and I'll be very, very lucky if I make it to retirement before mine does, too.
posted by "But who are the Chefs?" at 3:05 PM on July 25, 2012 [18 favorites]


Idiocracy, anyone?

No thank you. Because I eventually gave up on the idea that the rich got that way because they're smart, and the poor got that way because they're stupid.
posted by Naberius at 3:06 PM on July 25, 2012 [16 favorites]


But I love this quote (from the third link, not directly related to the main post): "Women comprise almost a quarter (24 percent) of the “marzipan layer,” that talent-rich level right below the icing on the corporate cake."

I'd love to be marzipan, but that's because I think marzipan is so much more delicious than icing.
posted by jb at 3:06 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


And do you believe in dragons and unicorns, too?

I would, if there was data to back them up.

Why does Europe see their declining birth rates as a problem? To say that a country with a population surplus has an advantage over one that doesn't seems to be missing a great deal of technological development. Productivity-wise, the amount of economic output one person can control only looks to increase due to developments in automation. Society-wise, there have been fewer people before, so what's the big deal about their being fewer in the future? Military-wise, come on. If there is anything technology has covered, it is in causing deaths.

And wouldn't less people mean more demand for labor, resulting in increased living conditions for all? Seems like a no-brainer, and our response in America should be to help poor people have less kids. (I'm a proud parent of 2 who would love two more, so I'm hardly anti-children).
posted by BeeDo at 3:11 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


They will clone themselves.
posted by francesca too at 3:13 PM on July 25, 2012


My apologies if this is a little off-topic:

As someone who recently graduated from a high school in a rural, somewhat poor area, I have seen this phenomenon firsthand. I can name at least five girls I know off the top of my head who have had unplanned pregnancies in the past couple of years. An acquaintance of mine just recently threw a baby shower. One of my classmates has fathered, I am not exaggerating, four children. I know this article is about unplanned pregnancies among the poor in general, but I have a feeling that much of the problem here lies in how miserable sex education tends to be in poor areas. We got that ridiculous abstinence-based education that doesn't work because, you know, teenagers fuck like rabbits. You have to equip them to do it safely, not scold them for thinking about it, insist they never do it, and cover your ears thereafter.
I have met couples my age who, when surveyed about their choice of contraception, have said "oh, we pull out!" as if that's a perfectly failsafe thing to do. I know one couple who did this for a year and it's some kind of miracle there weren't any unplanned pregnancies. (ignoring the risk of transmitting diseases entirely)
You'd be surprised how little people my age know about this stuff, even when unplanned pregnancy is such a visible issue to them. I have seen girls pressured into using the pull-out method (or no method) because some jackass "doesn't like condoms" over and over again. I have done my best all throughout high school to tell any girl who confides in me that this is stupid and that any guy lucky enough to be with them better be grateful enough not to whine about using contraception, but it's always an uphill battle. We have one grocery store. You will always see someone you know there, possibly family, and you will almost always be checked out by someone you know. Rumors spread fast in a school where everybody knows everybody. I don't think it could hurt to make sure low income teenagers have knowledge of and discreet access to contraception, so that they aren't crippled right out of the gate. Maybe that wouldn't fix everything, but it'd be better than nothing. I have seen so many of my peers get pregnant in high school. I have seen promise and potential evaporate left and right, and the sad thing is that it's usually because of a simple, easily preventable lack of knowledge.
posted by Gymnopedist at 3:19 PM on July 25, 2012 [59 favorites]


...the rates of unplanned pregnancies and births among poor women now dwarf the fertility rates of wealthier women, and finds that the gap between the two groups has widened significantly over the past five years...

Why does this feel like a subtle entreaty to white people to get busy breeding?


Well, that kind of was the whole point....
posted by resurrexit at 3:19 PM on July 25, 2012


Why does Europe see their declining birth rates as a problem?

Because the entire house of cards that is the economy of the "developed world" is stacked upon continuous growth in consumption. Your analysis is sensible, but, unfortunately, an enormous proportion of most of these economies is due to consumer spending and the attendant service sector. Consumer debt is so high already that the only way to continue growing consumer spending is to grow more consumers.
posted by junco at 3:28 PM on July 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


Sure is a good thing we've done away with inheritance taxes, giving us yet another way that wealth is getting concentrated among fewer and fewer people.
posted by ckape at 3:32 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Why does this feel like a subtle entreaty to white people to get busy breeding?"

Because that's how you're biased? I read it as yet more damning evidence of the American health care system has failed it's citizens. Because I'm Canadian.
posted by dobie at 3:33 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Why does Europe see their declining birth rates as a problem?"

Most plausible reason: The economic cost to society as the number of elderly retirees rises in relation to the number of young workers.

Most common reason: Immigration panic as nations become less homogeneous.
posted by kyrademon at 3:34 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


The people who aren't having children better hope that their investments all work out when they retire. Otherwise they are going to have a hard time surviving.

So having children is a pyramid scheme?
posted by IjonTichy at 3:39 PM on July 25, 2012 [10 favorites]


Having children has been a pyramid scheme for thousands of years.
posted by Justinian at 3:43 PM on July 25, 2012 [16 favorites]


The people who aren't having children better hope that their investments all work out when they retire. Otherwise they are going to have a hard time surviving.

At least I am not bringing people into a hopeless doomed existence in which any opportunity to find happiness and security is increasingly limited to those born to wealth.

When I finally end, I'll have the satisfaction of knowing that my end inconveniences no one.
posted by winna at 3:43 PM on July 25, 2012 [14 favorites]


"Why does Europe see their declining birth rates as a problem?"

I suspect falling working age population would be very deflationary even if overall productivity were somehow maintained due to technology due to falling demand. Housing prices would fall as well as sales of many other goods and services. A huge portion of the population could fall into poverty as a result. I keep hearing Japan has the worst case population projections, though they don't seem too be doing to badly yet.
posted by Golden Eternity at 3:53 PM on July 25, 2012


Do what the USA does and punish women mercilessly for having a kid if they want a serious career? Surprise, fewer kids.

Having employment law experience, I find this statement to be a novel one.

If you are still confused about why there are fewer children, think about contemporary use of the word, "protection". Protection from what? The serial killer? The thief in the night? No, the dreaded infant!

Because I eventually gave up on the idea that the rich got that way because they're smart, and the poor got that way because they're stupid.

You are out of touch with reality in this regard, although it is true that low IQ is more strongly correlated with poverty than high IQ is with economic success. SWPL types can read more about this in Steve Pinker's The Blank Slate.

Why does Europe see their declining birth rates as a problem?

Because they have social welfare systems that require a certain population of workers. A shrinking national tax base plus a growing population of entitlement recipients thanks to longevity is not sustainable. That word is not just for growing food.
posted by Tanizaki at 3:55 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Do what the USA does and punish women mercilessly for having a kid if they want a serious career? Surprise, fewer kids.

It's not just a corporate-culture thing; this is codified at state and federal levels of government. Women who aren't in the workforce for very long (owing to long stretches for child-rearing) are more likely to have a lower average salary over a decade than their male counterparts -- so their social security benefits are likely to be lower once they're eligible.

One of the reasons I'm still in the workforce after having a kid is because I want to pad out all my retirement benefits as much as possible while I'm in my "peak" earning years. Which, unfortunately, match my peak fertility and child-rearing years. And so, we stopped at one kid, because that's all we realistically could handle with a two-career household.

If we had better (paid) parental leaves, corporate cultures that didn't treat parents like social deviants, and a government that didn't punish women for performing the unpaid labor of raising the next generation of taxpayers, then perhaps we'd see different results.
posted by sobell at 3:56 PM on July 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'll have the satisfaction of knowing that my end inconveniences no one.

The corollary of this is that your life conveniences no one. Which is too bad.
posted by alexei at 4:22 PM on July 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


If you missed it, the teen birth rate discussion from the other day might be of interest.
posted by box at 4:24 PM on July 25, 2012


In the US we keep those nasty little tykes hidden away, playing indoors.

Thank god.
posted by adamdschneider at 4:40 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Seems like this could increase wealth inequality. At the top end, the upper-middle-class and wealthy consolidate their wealth on the few children they do have (or adopt), so the rich become more wealthy but less numerous. At the bottom of the wealth scale, you have a ton of kids being born into poverty, with all of the disadvantages that entails. Those children have a hard time improving their lot, so a lot of them stay poor, only to have additional poor children later.
posted by Mitrovarr at 4:41 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Come on, let's just take one for the team (i.e., the rest of the biosphere) and let those birth rates keep on fallin'. Please.
posted by anarch at 4:45 PM on July 25, 2012 [8 favorites]


The world economy is based on continuous growth, period. Capitalism is not and never has been a sustainable system.

Obviously, we can't keep the human population growing indefinitely. We can't also pretend that population decline will come without economic consequences. It would be great if we could acknowledge that fact and get out ahead of it, but I am not hopeful in that regard.

Something that everyone seems to get backward is the cause of the Earth's 20th century population boom. It's not because people have more or too many children. It's because we all live a whole lot longer. We keep adding new inventory before we've gotten rid of the stuff on the shelf.

The great revolution of the 21st century will be depopulation by choice, rather than famine, pandemic, or war. Among populations of women who have access to birth control, the birth rate is always under replacement rate (which is 2.2 live births per woman).

Right now, we are catching up- the public health triumphs of sanitation and vaccination have allowed more people to live, and improved life spans all over, so the population has grown. Birth control was the next great movement in public health, and we are still in that period of transition, watching it change the world around us.

I don't think the solution to anything is bring more babies into the world who are only lukewarmly -or, God forbid not at all -desired by their parents. That is an ecological impossibility besides. It seems to me that it's going to be a lot easier to switch to a steady state economic system rather than continue to worship at the shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Growth.
posted by Athene at 4:48 PM on July 25, 2012 [10 favorites]


The corollary of this is that your life conveniences no one. Which is too bad.

Ouch. Those of us who chose not to have children or are infertile are worthless, then? What if we adopt? Would our lives have meaning then?
posted by Thoughtcrime at 4:56 PM on July 25, 2012 [9 favorites]


We have one grocery store. You will always see someone you know there, possibly family, and you will almost always be checked out by someone you know. Rumors spread fast in a school where everybody knows everybody.

I just wanted to say that, as someone else who grew up in a poor, rural, very religious town where the rumor mill was always running, this was maybe the biggest barrier to contraception. My high school girlfriend and I would try to go to Wal-Mart literally in the middle of the night so we minimized our chances of someone seeing us or checking our purchase when we bought condoms because everyone knew everyone. High school health offices really ought to give them out, but abstinence only and all of that.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:57 PM on July 25, 2012 [9 favorites]


Gymnopedist, I couldn't agree with you more about the necessity of reality based sex ed. That said, withdrawal is not a terrible option. It's not a great one, but it's not a rotten one, either. Its real world effectiveness rate is about 75%, but the real world effectiveness rate of condoms is 80%, and the real world effectiveness rate of the Pill is about 90%.

If you have no money and no way to get to a store or a clinic, withdrawal is far, far better than nothing.

Also, a lot of women (a LOT of women) have problems with the spermicide commonly used in condoms. It's an irritant, which causes microtears in women's mucus membranes. So if you are relying on condoms for STI protection, using condoms with nonox-9 will actually accelerate the possibility of disease transmission because of the microtears.

Best practices are an IUD, implant, injectible, ring, or pill (in that order, from most effective to least) to take care of contraception needs, then unlubricated condoms for STI prevention. Obviously, use a water based lubricant with unlubricated condoms. Ideally, you run a "patch test" -like with hair dye- before you commit to a lube, so you know it's not irritating or allergy inducing before you actually need to use it.
posted by Athene at 5:07 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Honestly, what do all you parents think your kids will do for a living once what were formerly stable, middle-class white-collar jobs are computerized or automated out of existence, the way formerly stable, middle-class blue-collar jobs were?

Someone has to design the hardware and write the software to do that.
posted by Apocryphon at 5:13 PM on July 25, 2012


High school health offices really ought to give them out, but abstinence only and all of that.

It's too embaressing to ask for them; just put out baskets in all of the bathrooms.
posted by jb at 5:24 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


The corollary of this is that your life conveniences no one. Which is too bad.

Ouch. Those of us who chose not to have children or are infertile are worthless, then? What if we adopt? Would our lives have meaning then?


Indeed, my years of volunteer work at food banks, mental health support hotlines, animal rehabilitation centers and other community service is irrelevant because I didn't reproduce.

It's usually an undercurrent in this whole 'why don't women have more babies?!' conversation, but it's rarely as starkly stated.
posted by winna at 5:27 PM on July 25, 2012 [26 favorites]


It's going to become progressively harder for the propertied class to hold onto their (current) share of the pie, unless I'm mistaken.
posted by fraxil at 5:28 PM on July 25, 2012


Someone has to design the hardware and write the software to do that.ut

Right, but they won't likely be living in the U.S. making what we would consider to be a living wage. There's also likely not going to be one hardware/software engineer job for every job automated out of existence. If there was, what would be the point of automation?
posted by Thoughtcrime at 5:28 PM on July 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


One of the reasons I chose not to have children was so that I didn't add to the layer of already-privileged white Anglo upper-middle-class people in the US. My children would have been born on third base, and I didn't think the world particularly needed more of that.

At least not from people like me who were ambivalent about having children. People who really want to be parents, on the other hand, should always be parents when possible, because the world needs more truly loved and wanted children.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:51 PM on July 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


Do what the USA does and punish women mercilessly for having a kid if they want a serious career? Surprise, fewer kids.

Yeah, except that the US, with some of the least friendly maternity and paternity policies in the developed world, has a higher birth-rate than almost anywhere in Europe, which has uniformly more generous policies. Norway, for example? Held out as the ideal? 1.9 births per woman. Rate dropped from about 3.9 in 1962 to about 1.75 in 1977, and though it's slightly higher now, it hasn't hit 2 since 1975.
posted by valkyryn at 5:52 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


The corollary of this is that your life conveniences no one. Which is too bad.

Well that's just plain wrong, and a crappy thing to say. I have two kids, they're wonderful, and have made my life better in many ways. I also have friends who have chosen not to have kids, they're wonderful as well, and have made my life better in many ways. Heck I know people that I don't like that don't have kids, and THEY'VE even made my life better. You don't have to be responsible for half of somebody's genetic information to have made the world a better place.

Having kids or not having kids is a very important choice, and quite frankly if somebody thinks they don't want kids, they're right.
posted by Gygesringtone at 6:22 PM on July 25, 2012 [11 favorites]


Snark aside, the best comparison for this discussion isn't an overall birth rate, but a comparison of what educated women with careers do in country versus country. Check out this study;:
http://www.demographic-research.org/volumes/vol17/9/
The observed relationship between education and fertility in Norwegian women for the cohort examined is precisely the opposite of the same relationship observed for American women.
posted by 1adam12 at 6:26 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'll have the satisfaction of knowing that my end inconveniences no one.

The corollary of this is that your life conveniences no one. Which is too bad.


Wow, how very epigrammatic and witty. It's as if Alexander Pope and the Algonquin Round Table had a baby and named it Montaigne. Does it occur to you when typing such a bon mot that you're saying it to and about actual, real, breathing fellow humans who have, you know, lives and shit?
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:30 PM on July 25, 2012 [8 favorites]


1adam12-

I admit I barely skimmed the paper, but is that right? Table 1 (on pg. 227) seems to indicate that fertility at age 39 is 2.18 for women who complete "compulsory" education but only 1.73 with a "higher degree" (which is listed as 18+ years of schooling, so maybe masters-equivalent? I don't know anything about Norway's education system). Interestingly, the male figures are very similar across educational backgrounds. I doubt births to women in their 40s would come close to making up this gap, so it seems like it's the same directional effect as in the US, albeit with a smaller magnitude. Or am I misreading this?
posted by dsfan at 6:43 PM on July 25, 2012


I wrote "The corollary of this is that your life conveniences no one. Which is too bad." I was reacting to the whole comment:

At least I am not bringing people into a hopeless doomed existence in which any opportunity to find happiness and security is increasingly limited to those born to wealth.

When I finally end, I'll have the satisfaction of knowing that my end inconveniences no one.


This goes far beyond not having children, and denies the possibility of a better future. If you've dedicated your time to helping others, your death will "inconvenience" people far more than the death of someone whose main achievement was that they had progeny.
posted by alexei at 6:50 PM on July 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


There's also likely not going to be one hardware/software engineer job for every job automated out of existence. If there was, what would be the point of automation?

More wealth created per person per hour. Ie why we can buy a t-shirt for $10 instead of $200, and thus have twenty of them instead of one.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:01 PM on July 25, 2012


Yeah, except that the US, with some of the least friendly maternity and paternity policies in the developed world, has a higher birth-rate than almost anywhere in Europe, which has uniformly more generous policies.

It's my understanding that the US birth rate is higher because we have more immigrants who tend to have more children. I can't remember the cite, but I read about it in grad school.

Anyway, whenever the professional pundits comment about the US birth rate, I wonder what agenda they're following.

For what it's worth, I'm the youngest in my group of NYC mommy friends, and I had my first baby at an unheard-for in my culture age of 33. Meanwhile, my classmates from the midwest (many of whom are in tight financial situations) are working on their 4th. And you know what? They're really happy about it. It's not just a matter of contraception.

I think for many women, the desire to have babies is very strong (myself included). My theory is that the same sort of focus and discipline that drives my mommy friends to get advanced degrees and climb the corporate latter also allows us to delay our desire for children. I love babies, but I'm also realistic about how many I can feasibly have for both health and financial reasons, and to stick with a plan for having them.
posted by snickerdoodle at 7:18 PM on July 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


Athene is the first person to mention the frigging elephant in the room, which suggests that the rest of you are all a little bit mad - as Kenneth Boulding said, "Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist".

The US cannot sustainably continue to increase its population in order to defer debts to the environment and the future. If you need more and more people in order to pay for old people, you need to reform your economy. The world is not a pyramid scheme. This cannot continue. What is a stable and sustainable population for the USA? 400 million, 800 million? Where do you finally stop? Most experts would say that the USA needs a substantially smaller population to provide equity for future generations.

Anyone who doesn't get this or disagrees with it is implicitly or explicitly a cornucopian, and have to argue against a mountain of evidence regarding carrying capacities of the earth.
posted by wilful at 7:32 PM on July 25, 2012 [11 favorites]


More wealth created per person per hour. Ie why we can buy a t-shirt for $10 instead of $200, and thus have twenty of them instead of one.

That would be great, if the wealth was distributed not just to the lucky few who get to design the software and hardware for the machine that now make the $10 t-shirt, but what about the many, many more folks who lost their job to the machine? Will trickle-down save them?

Even if the increase in wealth was evenly distributed, by increasing the number of persons through population growth, you're also decreasing everyone's share of that extra wealth per person per hour. The lucky few will be able to buy 20x as many t-shirts, but everyone else will have to dig through their garbage for clothing, because they won't be able to afford $10.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 7:45 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Do what the USA does and punish women mercilessly for having a kid if they want a serious career? Surprise, fewer kids.

Yeah, except that the US, with some of the least friendly maternity and paternity policies in the developed world, has a higher birth-rate than almost anywhere in Europe, which has uniformly more generous policies. Norway, for example? Held out as the ideal? 1.9 births per woman. Rate dropped from about 3.9 in 1962 to about 1.75 in 1977, and though it's slightly higher now, it hasn't hit 2 since 1975.
posted by valkyryn at 8:52 PM on July 25 [+] [!]
I think the key here is choice? I'm 24 - I'd really like to have a kid in the nearish future - but I'm in grad school and I'd like to be a tenured faculty member (ha!) and there is no "convenient" time for me to have kids. So I regulate my fertility with birth control that I pay a lot of money for and when potential employers ask borderline illegal questions, I tell them I don't have plans to have children. And maybe when I'm 40 or something, I'll have to resort to in vitro fertilization and get pregnant with quadruplets?

If I'd gotten pregnant in high school, or gotten pregnant without the option of financial support of my upper-middle class parents, I almost certainly wouldn't have had the resources or energy to go to an excellent college far from home and then go to graduate school and envision this particular future for myself. Maybe I was in love and he didn't pull out fast enough, maybe my high school was abstinence only and I didn't know how to negotiate these things, maybe I tried to get an abortion but I live in New Hampshire where you need parental permission to get an abortion as a teenager, and my (hypothetical) parents were pro-life. So I dropped out of school, because the stigma was intense and babies take a lot of effort and I needed a job to support myself and my kid, and now I'm trapped in an endless loop of babies and low-paying jobs from which I get laid off, and more babies, and no job and more poverty and so on.

But if I was somewhere with a reasonable approach to family planning, and women with careers, and hey - maybe a stable social safety net, and maybe some mandated maternity leave, and sensible approaches to sex ed, and cheap contraception available from my nationalized health care system, and safe and legal abortions, I'd be empowered to take control of my sexuality and fertility and make actual choices rather than choosing the best of a series of bad options, or just sort of getting shunted into a spiral that isn't really my fault.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:03 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Wilful, few people argue in favor of infinite exponential growth.

Infinitely into the future the entire universe is going to dissolve into a timeless eternal mist of cold subatomic particles. Long before that the sun is going to turn into a red giant that expands past the orbit of the Earth. Long before that it will continue to get steadily warmer and eventually global warming will render the planet uninhabitable. Long before that, the human species is statistically likely to come to an end due to some unforeseen series of events. Long before that, we're going to effectively run out of many of the minerals and commodities that make modern civilization possible. Long before that, the USA is likely to cease to exist, and in any event our country's reproductive policy will likely be less and less relevant on the global scale as time goes by. Long before that, something unpredictable is likely to happen that will make the prognostications of "experts" look absurd in hindsight.

All that aside, it seems to me that generally, people don't really worry about the future past the lifespans of their living close relatives. (And if you think they should, then you need to make the case as to why.) On that timescale it makes sense to hope for continued growth, prosperity, and fertility.

Also, I'm not sure what you mean, exactly, by "debts to the...future." Can you elaborate?
posted by xigxag at 8:06 PM on July 25, 2012


That would be great, if the wealth was distributed not just to the lucky few who get to design the software and hardware for the machine that now make the $10 t-shirt, but what about the many, many more folks who lost their job to the machine? Will trickle-down save them?

What about them? You can get paid for what you know or what you do. "Know" is better.

I remain surprised to find people who lament "lost their job to a machine". Think about energy equivalence. An average basal metabolism is about 80 watts. Let's say vigorous work is about 200 watts. The average US home uses power at the rate of 1000 watts. One way to think of that is having 5-10 invisible servants in your home who obey you without question. Automatic coffee maker? Why not hire a servant to prepare it? Hot running water? The vast majority of people who ever lived never even imagined such a thing. Why not have a tank out back and hire a servant to stoke a fire underneath it? Do you use any sort of transport that uses an engine? What tears you must shed for the blacksmith and buggy whip maker. Is there any reason why the modern conveniences you enjoy are more conscionable than a robot on an assembly line?

Even if the increase in wealth was evenly distributed, by increasing the number of persons through population growth, you're also decreasing everyone's share of that extra wealth per person per hour. The lucky few will be able to buy 20x as many t-shirts, but everyone else will have to dig through their garbage for clothing, because they won't be able to afford $10.

Yes, so easy when wealth is "distributed". One wonders why I spend so much time at the office when I could just twiddle my thumbs and wait for the "distribution".

You seem to be in La-La Land. Check out the latest American Housing Survey from HUD and the Census and see that the majority of poor households have microwaves, pay tv, and DVD players, but according to you all but the "lucky few" will be dumpster-diving from a t-shirt?
posted by Tanizaki at 8:33 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


There is no "fertility crisis" in America. We are still having too many children to do what we need to do--which is build down the population to manageable levels. If there's a problem here, it's that the poor are having too many children, not that the wealthy are having too few. Keep the reproduction rate of the wealthy were it is, and bring that of the poor into line with it, and we might actually be able to avoid catastrophe.

It's astonishing to me that virtually no one talks about overpopulation--the single biggest environmental problem we face--anymore. Article after article now appear on global warming, "dustbowlification," and the problem of producing enough food under such conditions to feed 9 billion people...but almost no one discusses bringing the population down to levels that are feedable and otherwise sustainable.

Arguments that we need to keep growing the population for economic reasons are the height of insanity. The population simply cannot keep growing forever...and to argue that we should increase the population so that our retirements can be more pleasant is just madness.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 8:33 PM on July 25, 2012 [11 favorites]


But if I was somewhere with a reasonable approach to family planning, and women with careers, and hey - maybe a stable social safety net, and maybe some mandated maternity leave, and sensible approaches to sex ed, and cheap contraception available from my nationalized health care system, and safe and legal abortions, I'd be empowered to take control of my sexuality and fertility and make actual choices rather than choosing the best of a series of bad options, or just sort of getting shunted into a spiral that isn't really my fault.

Or you could just get married.

I found "a spiral that isn't really my fault" to be a novel description of the hypothetical you described.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:38 PM on July 25, 2012


xigxag, I am not talking about two hundred or so years down the track, I am talking about this generation and the next few generations. This is not a theoretical concern, it is something that people alive today are already facing.

Debts to the future?

mass extinction under way.

Limits to growth.

Ecological overshoot.

Ecological footprint.

The Ogallala aquifer.

I could go on...
posted by wilful at 8:40 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or you could just get married.

Which would add what to this scenario?
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:41 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah, except that the US, with some of the least friendly maternity and paternity policies in the developed world, has a higher birth-rate than almost anywhere in Europe, which has uniformly more generous policies. Norway, for example? Held out as the ideal? 1.9 births per woman. Rate dropped from about 3.9 in 1962 to about 1.75 in 1977, and though it's slightly higher now, it hasn't hit 2 since 1975.

Given the enormous disparity in birth rates between women of different income levels, you can't really compare the US to Norway directly like that. After taxes and transfers the United States has a Gini coefficient of .378, the 4th highest in the OECD. Norway's is .250, the third lowest.

Among the set of American women that are most like Norwegian women, I suspect Norway wins in terms of birth rate.
posted by jedicus at 8:42 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Tanizaki, it's not like lots of people who are married don't need all the things ChuraChura listed.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:48 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


OK, Tanizaki. We both agree that our hypothetical teenagers should have had safer sex, and in doing so they certainly are responsible for the outcome. The problem is that as a society we've developed lots and lots of ways for people to catch themselves after a mistake, but teenagers in the US are generally prevented from catching themselves because we've taken away all their safety nets!

OK. So they should have known to have safe sex. Well, many schools (even public schools) in the US teach abstinence-only sex-ed, and pulling out seems like a pretty reasonable thing to do if you don't know any better. She should have been on birth control - well, you generally need to arrange that through a doctor, through parents, through access to Planned Parenthood. Socially conservative parents? They'll never OK it, and maybe she doesn't have the money to pay for her own prescription, and there may not be a Planned Parenthood around anymore because they're being broadly defunded across the US. She should have gotten Plan B as soon as they had unprotected sex? That'd be awesome, if the US had removed the age restrictions on access to Plan B (like the FDA recommended) and and if pharmacists followed the rules properly. She should have gotten an abortion? Lots of states require parental notification, there lots of other state-imposed barriers, lots of states have few facilities that provide abortions, they're expensive, and you have to get to clinics. She should have stayed in school after having the kid? You find child care for infants that a high school junior can pay for. OK, well, she dropped out but should have gotten - and kept - her job? Good luck getting a job without even a GED. After that one initial mistake, what did she have control over?

Where not otherwise cited, I pulled data from here
posted by ChuraChura at 9:08 PM on July 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


What about them? You can get paid for what you know or what you do. "Know" is better.

We don't live in a meritocracy, and the dichotomy you present is false. Many people get paid simply by owning capital (like the hypothetical t-shirt making machine I was responding to). Maybe they got that capital through hard work. Maybe they got it simply through luck or circumstance.

People shouldn't go hungry because their job was made obsolete (and folks who "know" are not immune to this) or someone living across the globe is willing to do their work for less than they could live on. Reducing a living, breathing human being to a figure in an equation describing energy equivalence is... well, inhuman.

I'm not arguing that wealth should be distributed evenly, just observing that it tends to concentrate, and gains in productivity do not benefit everyone. It's great that the poor have microwaves and DVD players. It's too bad an increasing number can't afford basic health care, quality nutrition and education. You know, things that actually matter.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 9:12 PM on July 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


It's astonishing to me that virtually no one talks about overpopulation--the single biggest environmental problem we face--anymore.

The whole "overpopulation" conversation has been so deeply tainted by the strains of racism and eugenics that have run through it, that it's not an easy conversation to have at this point. That's maybe not fair to the (many) people who want to have that conversation in a goodhearted way, but it's the unfortunate legacy. (Well, that, as well as the overblown predictions of mass starvation and societal collapse that become less compelling every decade, even as they perhaps become more likely.)

Hot running water? The vast majority of people who ever lived never even imagined such a thing.

My personal "ah ha!" moment about poverty and access to resources was being in a large gathering in a poor country as a 21 year old, and looking around at the hundreds of people, and all of a sudden getting that of everyone I could see, maybe five would at some point in their lives have a hot shower. It's something that anyone who has it gives no thought to at all, but is an almost unimaginable use of resources for many people.

Check out the latest American Housing Survey from HUD and the Census and see that the majority of poor households have microwaves, pay tv, and DVD players, but according to you all but the "lucky few" will be dumpster-diving from a t-shirt?

Being poor in the US isn't nearly as bad as it used to be, nor is it as bad as it still is in most of the world. But at the same time, it's way worse than it needs to be, and worse than it is in the countries that do a better job of providing basic social safety nets.
posted by Forktine at 9:54 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Why does Europe see their declining birth rates as a problem?

I suspect that the homogeneous countries (or at least the conservative portions of their populations) want to keep their countries just the way they are. They know that they need to keep their populations up to keep their economies running, and they know the only alternative to higher native birth rates is to open the borders to more immigrants, and they don't want to let in lots of immigrants who they fear will change the character of their countries.

In Poland, for example, almost everyone now (since WWII) is a white Catholic of local ancestry, and I think a lot of conservative Poles would like to keep it that way. They would have a hard time dealing with the idea of Warsaw having large African and Asian neighborhoods, or of having a Little Russia or a Little Germany in town.
posted by pracowity at 12:19 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Both Western Europe and East Asia are facing situations where their social welfare nets buckle under the strain of many, many seniors retiring, and not enough young people working. One potential labor source is immigrants, but as mentioned in the above post, these homogeneous countries don't tend to welcome foreign laborers. In Japan, they'd rather develop advanced robotic service rather than importing Southeast Asian workers, or so I've heard.
posted by Apocryphon at 12:52 AM on July 26, 2012


[Comment deleted; please don't pull in arguments from other threads.]
posted by taz at 1:07 AM on July 26, 2012


One more problem that could be solved by sensible education and healthcare policies.
posted by blue_beetle at 5:12 AM on July 26, 2012


Why does Europe see their declining birth rates as a problem?

Pensions.

Here in the Netherlands, when you get past a certain age (65 right now, it will rise to 67 by 2020) you get a pension, in two parts: from the State, and from the pension fund you participated in during your work life. It is the first part that is the problem, because the money for paying that pension today is coming from the people working today.

If the proportion of old people to young (working) people changes such that there are not enough young working people, that's a problem.

The government will likely have to raise the age higher and a earlier than 2020 - but remember that a larger proportion of voters will also be those older people, so it will be even more unpopular to do this than it is right now.
posted by DreamerFi at 5:44 AM on July 26, 2012


Is MetaFilter getting nastier, or are all threads about family planning like this and I've just been missing it?
posted by AugieAugustus at 6:42 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't see why it should matter who's having the children, as long as there's a relatively egalitarian and robust public education system in place. I'm a professional, childfree woman. If poorer women want to have children instead, that's fine with me. Most of the girls I went to high school with (in a rural, northern community) had children in high school or very shortly after. In my case, it was not because of poor sex education. We had registered nurses teaching it, it was based on established medical science and contraceptives were covered. I don't think anyone can claim ignorance. Yes, there were unplanned pregnancies because teenagers often don't plan very well. (Hell, I had one, though I chose to abort it.)

The difference between those of us who persued careers and those who chose to become mothers to many children at a young age is that the careerists saw their adult lifes as one of ample opportunity. We were taught by our parents to explore the world, to work and to learn. We saw that all these things were fun. The people who went straight into early parenthood never saw any other opportunity. On the other hand, I think that most of them are pretty happy and adept at being parents in a way that I'll never be, as much as I love being an aunt. If parenting is fulfilling to those parents, and working full-time is more fulfilling to me, what does it matter who squeezes out the next generation?

Those kids, like me and my high school cohort, will all go to the same schools. (Up until post-secondary, which is a huge problem, but not as insurmountable a one as if there were a descrepancy in early education.) To whatever extent the income of one generation contricts or renders unequal the opportunities of the next one, that's the actual problem. And a strong education system and social programs is the true solution, in large part because it doesn't require those of us uninterested and possibly suboptimal at parenthood to pursue it.
posted by Kurichina at 7:02 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't see why it should matter who's having the children, as long as there's a relatively egalitarian and robust public education system in place.

I would agree - except that I would add that you also need the other trappings of a strong social welfare system, because good schools don't work as well if the kids attending are hungry and can't concentrate, don't have libraries to get books to read, and are left to fend for themselves for long hours because there is no affordable daycare. The whole system has to be set up to prioritize people, not profits.

But why it also matters is that all people should be able to have children, if they want to - and if we set up a system whereby women must choose between a career and children, we are denying some women's right to children even as we stymie other women's attempts to have a career. (in fact, substitute people in there for "women", because men matter too). I always was in the personal "don't have kids until I'm stable" camp, because I've seen first hand how young parents struggle and, while I admire them, it's not what I wanted. But now I'm 35 and I want children and I'm still not stable. I have to act now or I will lose out - and for me, children are more important than financial stability. I know I'm better off than my mom was when she had us, because I have a high school diploma - but she was also younger and had a lot more energy than I do.

someone upthread mentioned they are in graduate school: I read somewhere about some research that found that the best time for female academics to have kids was actually during your PhD - you have more flexibility then and they are school-age when it comes to when you are in a tenure track position. But the same research/article also reported that being married was worse for an academic woman's career, while benefiting a man's career in academia.
posted by jb at 7:55 AM on July 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


sorry - on preview I see that you included other programs: "a strong education system and social programs is the true solution". So I just completely agree.
posted by jb at 7:56 AM on July 26, 2012


AugieAugustus:
"Is MetaFilter getting nastier, or are all threads about family planning like this and I've just been missing it?"
You've just been missing it. It's one of those subjects where a whole conflux of issues meet. Overpopulation, people who don't like kids, people who think the childless are selfish, Malthusian moaning, entitled mommies, MRA's, taxes, race, income, culture, politics. It's all here and tied together.
posted by charred husk at 9:36 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


For what it's worth, I'm the youngest in my group of NYC mommy friends, and I had my first baby at an unheard-for in my culture age of 33. Meanwhile, my classmates from the midwest (many of whom are in tight financial situations) are working on their 4th. And you know what? They're really happy about it. It's not just a matter of contraception.

This is in fact part of the problem. I think some of it is even that divide between the educated and more well-off and the less educated and less well off. My NYC experience definitely informed that. I had a child within norms for my culture, but very young for NYC, where most of my thirty year old friends are talking about maybe having kids in a few years. Maybe. And I was looked down on by some for it - the implication was that it was comparable to the way the Midwest would consider a teenage pregnancy. You want to have babies before you're established in your career? What are you thinking? Are you secretly part of those poor unwashed masses we love to play Lady Bountiful for, while not wanting to actually touch or live near any? Is it contagious?

Whereas in the Midwest, children are viewed as a blessing. Partially it may be because they don't have the financial constraints of urban populations, partially because they still have a farming culture, but it's not looked on nearly as negatively there.

The whole "overpopulation" conversation has been so deeply tainted by the strains of racism and eugenics that have run through it, that it's not an easy conversation to have at this point. That's maybe not fair to the (many) people who want to have that conversation in a goodhearted way, but it's the unfortunate legacy.

This is I think part of the serious problem. A lot of people are concerned about overpopulation, but the best way to deal with overpopulation is to convince people not to have babies. As you can see from the links above, the people who are having more than replacement value children tend to be largely low-income individuals. Low-income individuals tend to be disproportionately minority. (i would think also more pro-large-families, but that's based on my own Hispanic experience alone and may not apply more broadly.) So how do you have that conversation without sounding like you're saying, "Hey, I don't want any more of you poor minorities" when what you actually want to say is, "I don't want anybody to be having more babies than replacement value"? Especially when largely higher-income people are the ones who are already keeping themselves to that replacement value?

Also, how do you prevent it from seeming like a "You minorities are having too many babies, you're going to become the majority" issue, ESPECIALLY when you have no-shit legitimate (well, crazy, but they're real at least) people who actually worry about that. How do you separate from that?
posted by corb at 10:29 AM on July 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


Also, how do you prevent it from seeming like a "You minorities are having too many babies, you're going to become the majority" issue, ESPECIALLY when you have no-shit legitimate (well, crazy, but they're real at least) people who actually worry about that. How do you separate from that?

It would be the same as trying to have a conversation about limits on immigration untainted by the ways in which immigration controls have been selectively used for racist purposes over the past 200 or so years -- in other words, good luck and dream on.

The real truth here is that the overpopulation thing is a bit of a misdirection. We in the US and Europe have been living high on the hog by extracting resources and labor from the rest of the globe for centuries; the environmental unsustainability of that approach is only one piece of a much larger set of problems. At this point our collective ecological footprint is on the order of a few planets; even magically chopping our population in half wouldn't solve the underlying issues.
posted by Forktine at 10:42 AM on July 26, 2012


The problem is that as a society we've developed lots and lots of ways for people to catch themselves after a mistake, but teenagers in the US are generally prevented from catching themselves because we've taken away all their safety nets!

Could you please articulate what you specifically mean by "safety net"? I would hate to read it as "mechanism to protect me from the consequences of my behavior", but that is what it seems to be based on your narrative.

Do rubbers exist in your hypothetical universe?
posted by Tanizaki at 10:48 AM on July 26, 2012


To bring this relevant link in from the MeTa, for those who don't cross the streams, some thoughts on the difference between red and blue state pregnancies may apply.
Blue norms are well adapted to the information age. They encourage late family formation and advanced education. They tend to produce parents with maturity, graduate degrees, low divorce rates, and one or two very coddled children. These families do well.

In any case, for a lot of people, a graduate degree or even a bachelor’s degree isn’t realistic. The injunction to delay family formation until you are twenty-four and have finished your master’s, or what have you, offers these people only cold comfort. Many non-college-bound people need to figure that delaying marriage and family formation wins them not much economically while costing them several years of gratification and fertility.
And again, it's really hard to say, "Hey, you, you have a shot at a better life, go for it! You on the other hand, you're never going to amount to much, so you may as well start your small family now - but keep it small!"
posted by corb at 10:53 AM on July 26, 2012


Based on your comments, Tanizaki, I expect we have totally different sets of expectations for the government's role. People make mistakes. There are all sorts of mechanisms to protect me from the consequences of my behavior, or at least mitigate them. At 24, with a job, I'm able to access most of them. If I have unprotected sex, I can get plan B and an abortion if necessary. I'm old enough that nobody controls my access to contraception but me, and so on.

The point of my previous comment was that for many teenagers - an increasingly fertile group of people - society has cut off their access to them! Which is problematic, unless you think that the cascade of problems that can come from unprotected sex are a fair punishment for horny 16-year-olds.
posted by ChuraChura at 11:01 AM on July 26, 2012


People shouldn't go hungry because their job was made obsolete (and folks who "know" are not immune to this) or someone living across the globe is willing to do their work for less than they could live on. Reducing a living, breathing human being to a figure in an equation describing energy equivalence is... well, inhuman.

Let's return to reality, because "what shouldn't happen" isn't a law of the universe. And, as I pointed out, you are doing your part to make sure technology replaces living, breathing human beings.

I am sorry that my example was "inhuman" to you, but "inhuman" is an adjective, not an argument. The purpose was to illustrate to you that you take for granted many devices that replace labor that was previously performed by living, breathing human beings. Perhaps it is not my example that you truly find to be inhuman.

I'm not arguing that wealth should be distributed evenly, just observing that it tends to concentrate, and gains in productivity do not benefit everyone. It's great that the poor have microwaves and DVD players. It's too bad an increasing number can't afford basic health care, quality nutrition and education. You know, things that actually matter.

Of course it concentrates, and you are correct that society is not a meritocracy. We are increasingly stratified upon cognitive lines. The sad part is that dull people cannot be made smarter. The brave new world has arrived, but unlike Huxley's version, we tell the Gammas and Deltas that they can all be Alphas and Betas.

I wonder if that money spent on DVD players would have been better spent on nutritious food. Perhaps the Deltas simply do not care about what actually matters?
posted by Tanizaki at 11:24 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


The point of my previous comment was that for many teenagers - an increasingly fertile group of people - society has cut off their access to them! Which is problematic, unless you think that the cascade of problems that can come from unprotected sex are a fair punishment for horny 16-year-olds.

I'm sorry, did the corner drugstore vanish from society?

Things have never been better for horny 16-year-olds. They have the Internet and Fleshlights. In my day, the best one could hope for was the SI Swimsuit issue in February or a shared stash of a few old Playboys.

(we'll leave to the side the premise that the impulses of horny teenagers drive domestic policy)

Who cares about what's fair punishment? Is death fair punishment for simply touching an electric wire or sneezing while driving?
posted by Tanizaki at 11:30 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Of course it concentrates, and you are correct that society is not a meritocracy. We are increasingly stratified upon cognitive lines. The sad part is that dull people cannot be made smarter. The brave new world has arrived, but unlike Huxley's version, we tell the Gammas and Deltas that they can all be Alphas and Betas.

Tanizaki : have you read Brave New World? The fetuses that are destined to be Gammas and Deltas are specifically poisoned to reduce their intelligence. They could have been Alphas or Betas, but they were purposely stunted in their development.

As for stratifying along cognitive lines, that is also the definition of a "meritocracy", as imagined by the man who made up the word - who then uses his fictional world to show why meritocracies are just as bad as any other unequal 'cracy, regardless of why the elite are elite.

I knew one day I'd find a use for obsessively reading sociological science fiction for years. Apparently, it's correcting people's allusions on the internet.
posted by jb at 12:09 PM on July 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Seems like this could increase wealth inequality. At the top end, the upper-middle-class and wealthy consolidate their wealth on the few children they do have (or adopt), so the rich become more wealthy but less numerous. At the bottom of the wealth scale, you have a ton of kids being born into poverty, with all of the disadvantages that entails. Those children have a hard time improving their lot, so a lot of them stay poor, only to have additional poor children later.

See how well that works? You can guarantee there will be no upward mobility if the poor (or even the lower middle class) is trapped in the cycle. Meanwhile, children of the rich use more and more resources compared to children of less affluent parents. I recently house sat for a family of four (with twins.) They have horses and thousand dollar hand-made children's saddles that they have nearly outgrown. They have laptops, notebooks, cell phones and ipods (11 years old.) There are so many clothes and boots and shoes that their parents give away things after once or two wearings. They play with the 60 or so Painted Pony figurines that cost 45+ bucks a whack--most horse people I know treat them as fairly valuable collectables. And on and on. I'm not sure what the impact on the environment is comparing the children of the affluent with the poor, but I doubt if it's one to one.

Can society afford more more upper-middle-class or wealthy children?
posted by BlueHorse at 3:04 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can society afford them? Well, let's look at this, stripped of our irritation with too many toys and too little struggle.

They have horses. Someone's got to tend the horses, unless they do. Someone has to sell them feed. Someone has to sell them equipment. Somebody's laughing all the way to the bank while turning out thousand-dollar hand made saddles. Their parents are giving away clothes after one or two wearings? Sweet, sounds like some kids somewhere are getting some really nice non-ratty hand-me downs. They're buying collectible figurines? Someone's selling them.

If you believe in wealth redistribution at all, you should hope for more children of the more affluent, not less. It is the number one way wealth bleeds out, in terms of purchasing care and products for them.
posted by corb at 3:36 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Tanizaki : have you read Brave New World? The fetuses that are destined to be Gammas and Deltas are specifically poisoned to reduce their intelligence. They could have been Alphas or Betas, but they were purposely stunted in their development.

Yes, I make it a practice only to allude to works I have actually consumed. In this case, it was part of the curriculum at my Alpha/Beta high school.

You have missed the forest for the trees. Whether we have Alphas and Deltas because of directed engineering or social pressures/dysgenic fertility, the result is the same: socioeconomic classes that are stratified by largely immutable factors. No amount of "Head Start" is going to make a group of Delta children into Beta adults.

As for stratifying along cognitive lines, that is also the definition of a "meritocracy", as imagined by the man who made up the word - who then uses his fictional world to show why meritocracies are just as bad as any other unequal 'cracy, regardless of why the elite are elite.

In that case, he was out of touch with reality. The belief in the fiction that all people are equal has been the reason for many bad practices, such as the Cultural Revolution or No Child Left Behind. In fact, it is a form of creationism.

I knew one day I'd find a use for obsessively reading sociological science fiction for years. Apparently, it's correcting people's allusions on the internet.

What do you believe you corrected? You may be better served by reading sociology fact. I am happy to MeMail you some references to get you started. You may wish to start with Pinker's The Blank Slate.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:08 AM on July 27, 2012


Whether we have Alphas and Deltas because of directed engineering or social pressures/dysgenic fertility, the result is the same: socioeconomic classes that are stratified by largely immutable factors. No amount of "Head Start" is going to make a group of Delta children into Beta adults.

So people like my father, who worked in a steel mill but went to Yale, don't exist? My grandmother, the first in her family to ever go to college, is some sort of accident? I went to a top school. Some of my peers were prodigies, full of astounding intelligence and skills. Some were merely rich. Some came from very poor families, tested in, and were just as smart as the rest of the school's population; I suspect their opinion of Head Start would differ greatly from yours.

(There were no children born to women from my school that I can ever remember. It wouldn't be allowed, either by parents or, I suspect, the administration, which is quite proud of the Ivy acceptance rate. None of my classmates have kids now, seven years later. I don't think everyone is happy, though I suspect we were all lucky to have top-notch access to health care, a nurse, testing, and supplies.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:25 AM on July 27, 2012


Tanizaki - Pinker is NOT a sociologist - not even a social psychologist (like my boss). Michael Young, the author of Rise of the Meritocracy, was one of the most famous sociologists of the 20th century. His satire was heavily informed by his research on class and poverty in Britain.

if you would like some sociology facts to get started, I could ask my good friend with a sociology Phd what her department assigns to first years. Though her first recommendation to me was for Rise of the Meritocracy.

Whether we have Alphas and Deltas because of directed engineering or social pressures/dysgenic fertility, the result is the same: socioeconomic classes that are stratified by largely immutable factors. No amount of "Head Start" is going to make a group of Delta children into Beta adults.

If this were true, then there would be no differences in social mobility between countries with different social policies.

Except that there is - and countries with MORE money in "Head Start"-like programs (and lower overall social inequality) have higher levels of social mobility.
posted by jb at 8:10 AM on July 27, 2012


Yes, I make it a practice only to allude to works I have actually consumed. In this case, it was part of the curriculum at my Alpha/Beta high school.

You have missed the forest for the trees. Whether we have Alphas and Deltas because of directed engineering or social pressures/dysgenic fertility, the result is the same: socioeconomic classes that are stratified by largely immutable factors. No amount of "Head Start" is going to make a group of Delta children into Beta adults.


Tanizaki, I think you may have some points, but your method of conveying them is, whether deliberately or accidentally, extremely abrasive and a bit obnoxious.

I also believe that people have equal rights, but are not necessarily born equal. And maybe there's a way to explain that in a way that people can understand without getting angry. But that way is not the one you're taking.
posted by corb at 8:37 AM on July 27, 2012


So people like my father, who worked in a steel mill but went to Yale, don't exist? My grandmother, the first in her family to ever go to college, is some sort of accident? I went to a top school. Some of my peers were prodigies, full of astounding intelligence and skills. Some were merely rich. Some came from very poor families, tested in, and were just as smart as the rest of the school's population; I suspect their opinion of Head Start would differ greatly from yours.

You will notice that I said "group of Delta children" and not "single Delta child". I did so because I anticipated anecdotes such as yours. I found them similar to anecdotes from people who tell me they do they not wear a seat belt because Aunt Maggie was in a crash and if she would have been wearing her seat belt she would have been roasted alive but instead she was ejected and landed safely into a pile of down pillows that had been placed on the side of the road. Such stories betray their atypicality by the fact that they are told in the first place. Everyone knows that the vast majority of the time, when Aunt Maggie doesn't wear a seat belt in a crash, she gets scraped off the asphalt with a spatula.

Exceptions can always be found to general trends. That does not mean the trend does not hold. The search for a correlation of 1.0 is a fool's errand.

If this were true, then there would be no differences in social mobility between countries with different social policies.

Do you think that there might be demographic differences between those countries?

I am not saying that success is entirely genetic, only that it largely is. Environment can help a person reach his genetic potential, but that is all, just as nutrition as an effect on height. Yet, no amount of poor nutrition will make an adult three feet tall, and the best nutrition in the world will not make him eight feet tall.

And yes, I do think that even though people are not equal, they have equal rights under the law.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:00 AM on July 27, 2012


Do you think that there might be demographic differences between those countries?

Do you have any evidence, other than wishful thinking, that "demographic differences" are the key factor? And do you mean genetic? because when you say demographic, I think fertility, mortality, etc - which would totally fit with the FPP, but has nothing to do with your assertions.

First, there is no good evidence that ethnicity correlates to intelligence (lots of bad evidence from questionable, racist research, but no good evidence)

Second, if you look at the countries in the link I provided, you will see that the USA has a social mobility rate similar to that of the UK, while Canada (whose largest ethnic groups still are people whose ancestors are from the UK) has a social mobility rate much more like that of the Scandinavian countries despite its strong genetic/ethnic connections to the UK.

I am not saying that success is entirely genetic, only that it largely is. Environment can help a person reach his genetic potential, but that is all, just as nutrition as an effect on height. Yet, no amount of poor nutrition will make an adult three feet tall, and the best nutrition in the world will not make him eight feet tall.

And again - what is the evidence for this? Height certainly is genetic, but last time I checked, height is not the same thing as success (though prejudices do benefit men who are taller, but not too tall - ref).
posted by jb at 9:46 AM on July 27, 2012


Do you have any evidence, other than wishful thinking, that "demographic differences" are the key factor? And do you mean genetic? because when you say demographic, I think fertility, mortality, etc - which would totally fit with the FPP, but has nothing to do with your assertions.


I think, without actually supporting Tanizaki's supposition, that what is meant by "demographic differences" in countries has to do more with homogenity of population and native/immigrant population. There have been some studies on this, showing that more homogenous populations are more likely to support social welfare programs, because they view everyone as being part of their "tribe." There's also I think legitimate reasons to claim that the US has a very different demographic makeup than other countries, in part because we enslaved a significant portion of our population to a degree unprecedented in other countries, which had slavery, but not as large or far-reaching. And then we became an immigrant mecca for a hundred years - the place that everyone came because they thought we were a land of opportunity. Still do, somehow.

So we have one of the least homogenous populations, which makes it hard for some people to empathize with other people living there. And you have a lot of people - primarily either aliens or people who had been treated as aliens for hundreds of years - starting with nothing.

So it's a recipe for disaster in terms of stratification and social mobility - because you have entire classes of people starting out from very different circumstances, with cultures that disemphasize assimilation into the mainstream, and with an economy that was never prepared for such a large influx of people needing paid work.

Again, I don't agree that this is relevant to the point made above, but I just wanted to address the question of what demographics might have meant.

That said, if we're holding up Scandinavia as the example, it might be a good thing to look into a few things. There's this, from a Swedish economist, and another scholar talking about Sweden's actual economic failures.
posted by corb at 11:47 AM on July 27, 2012


If you believe in wealth redistribution at all, you should hope for more children of the more affluent, not less. It is the number one way wealth bleeds out, in terms of purchasing care and products for them.

Sure, that theory of trickle-down economics has been working out REALLY WELL when we look at, say, the reality of the last few decades here as the number of uber-rich has grown.

They have horses. Someone's got to tend the horses, unless they do. Someone has to sell them feed. Someone has to sell them equipment. Somebody's laughing all the way to the bank while turning out thousand-dollar hand made saddles.

Bespoke status signifiers like handmade saddles made by tiny two person shops aren't going to supply a magical boost to the economy or raise most people's standard of living.

Their parents are giving away clothes after one or two wearings? Sweet, sounds like some kids somewhere are getting some really nice non-ratty hand-me downs.

This is just gross. Let them eat cake!
posted by stagewhisper at 12:25 PM on July 27, 2012


I was specifically comparing the USA to other developed countries in regards to social mobility (in response to the idea that social mobility is somehow genetically linked), not overall economic growth. That said, I'm a social historian, which loosely translates to "I don't really care how much money people make, what kind of quality of life do they have (as measured by both health outcomes, perceptions and also social outcomes like crime, etc)?" High income and low quality of life is not necessarily preferable to lower income but higher quality of life.

I've heard the diversity arguments in regard to the adoption/support for social welfare - and I totally believe that perceived divisions (like race in the US) do inhibit support for strong social welfare, though I don't believe that it makes social welfare more costly or less effective. I've heard someone argue that the US couldn't have an NHS because it would be "too expensive" due to the diversity of the population, which just made no sense. The geographical density would matter, of course, except that the US has a much more dense population than Canada or Australia.

I think, without actually supporting Tanizaki's supposition, that what is meant by "demographic differences" in countries has to do more with homogenity of population and native/immigrant population. There have been some studies on this, showing that more homogenous populations are more likely to support social welfare programs, because they view everyone as being part of their "tribe."

This is an interesting point -- both Canada and Australia have much higher immigrant populations in proportion to their native-born populations than the US (some 20-25% versus 14% in the USA ref). But if what you are talking about are racial perceptions, then yes, the USA has a smaller "majority" (aka white) population: 69% of Americans are white non-Hispanic ref - in Canada, "hispanic" is not a racial category, but about 80% of Canadians are neither visible minorities nor aboriginal - ref, while about 90% of Australians are of European descent ref - and there are 9.1 million non-white people in the UK ref, so about 85% of the population is white there). But the difference isn't huge and leaves out how some areas of Can, Aus and the UK can be extremely diverse (like Toronto which is 50% non-white). I think that it is the history of race relations and the association of social welfare being primarily for the "other" (that is, black Americans) that has been been poisonous to social welfare in American politics (with a hefty dose of Cold War hysteria, but we had plenty of that in Canada too).

But all this had nothing to do with Tanizaki's original comments, wherein she or he asserted that
"We are increasingly stratified upon cognitive lines. The sad part is that dull people cannot be made smarter. The brave new world has arrived, but unlike Huxley's version, we tell the Gammas and Deltas that they can all be Alphas and Betas."
and
"Whether we have Alphas and Deltas because of directed engineering or social pressures/dysgenic fertility, the result is the same: socioeconomic classes that are stratified by largely immutable factors. No amount of "Head Start" is going to make a group of Delta children into Beta adults."
which I can only read as: elites in North America are elite because they are smarter than non-elites, and this cognitive ability is largely immutable.

To which I responded that if socioeconomic status were stratified along cognitive lines in modern societies and social programs have no effect on social mobility, then we would not see differential social mobility in countries which differ only significantly in the amount of investment that they put into social welfare.

Unless Tanizaki really wants to come out and say that social mobility is lower in the USA than in Canada because the USA has a larger non-white population? Because I really don't think they want to follow that argument out to its completely unsupported and racist conclusion.

which brings us to the final bit, and what got me thinking about Michael Young:
"And yes, I do think that even though people are not equal, they have equal rights under the law."
I apologize for spoilers, but I will just come out and summarize The Rise of the Meritocracy for those who have not read it:

In a not so distant future, the system for promoting bright children regardless of their parents' social class is completely perfect (this is the total SF part) - and all it does is strip the lower classes of their leaders and leave a terrible inequality that is, indeed, both cognitive as well as socioeconomic. If you believe that people have equal rights, that has to be more than equal rights under the law - you have to believe that people deserve the equal chances of a rewarding life, regardless of what they won in any genetic lottery: to be able to live in comfort, spend time with their families, have a chance to build for their own future. Young demonstrates why we must respect the work done by everyone, regardless of their cognitive abilities, and pay everyone relatively equally regardless of the intellectual status of their work - because to do anything else will just replace the old aristocracy - a tyranny of bloodlines - with the new meritocracy or a tyranny of genetics.

But we're not in Young's dystopia. We don't have a perfect system of promoting people based on cognitive aptitude. Yes, a few bright poor people get ahead - meanwhile, so do a whole lot of dim middle class and upper-class people, while many bright or even just plain old medium poor people can't get ahead.

And, given that we don't even really understand cognition, I doubt we will ever get to Young's prediction. The point of his fiction is that inequality is evil even if it is supposedly "justified and perfect" inequality. But in the meantime, I'm not going to stop advocating for better early education for all people, because it does help all people, even as I advocate for reducing income inequality across the board and making the difference between the lowest wages and the highest wages smaller (see my other many, many comments on inequality). This society we're in - we're in it all together. And we can either look at each other and decide that we all want to move together towards a better place, or divide ourselves into haves and have-nots (regardless of the method) and the haves had better have strong walls because the have-nots outnumber them.

also, have-nots make for a terrible consumer base.
posted by jb at 12:58 PM on July 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


which I can only read as: elites in North America are elite because they are smarter than non-elites, and this cognitive ability is largely immutable.

To which I responded that if socioeconomic status were stratified along cognitive lines in modern societies and social programs have no effect on social mobility, then we would not see differential social mobility in countries which differ only significantly in the amount of investment that they put into social welfare.


Ah, I see. Yes, I think I would not agree with this, though I would argue that intellect is one of the factors that does tend to move people into elite status or keep from falling out.

So, there are two factors that put someone into elite status:

1) Being born into elite status
2) Putting oneself into elite status.

Being born into elite status generally requires at least one and generally two elite parents, given what a strong lowering factor single-parenthood with no support from the other parent is. Which means that there is a genetic component to being born into elite status.

Putting oneself into elite status could happen in two ways: either self-launching into elite status, or being launched, generally by marriage or partnership.

Self-launching into elite status from non-elite status is incredibly hard, as has been said elsewhere on this thread and others. It takes a lot of factors - you have to be truly exceptional to self-launch from low-status to high-status. Either extremely intelligent, extremely hardworking, extremely charismatic, or extremely beautiful or strong. All of these provide genetic advantages.

Being launched into elite status through marriage or partnership is also difficult. People tend to marry around their socioeconomic status. It generally requires extreme characteristics to change that - either extreme intelligence,craftiness, charisma, beauty, etc.

So if you are a child being born into elite status, you do have at least something of a genetic step up. Not an enormous step up, but certainly at least somewhat of a step up. And if you are a child born into elite status, born of parents who were born into elite status, you are often getting both of the genetic steps up of your parents.

Over time, this could mean that if someone's predecessors came from elite status for long enough, the child could have a strong genetic advantage. This wouldn't mean: elite are smart, nonelite are stupid - but it could tend to speak to a slight percentile advantage. When you pair that slight advantage with parental assists, you have an incentive for a closed set.

(Warning: I am responding while watching a documentary on genetic selection and attractiveness at the moment - including how people respond sexually and when looking for a mate. Including based on perceived elite status.)
posted by corb at 1:27 PM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Logically what you say seems to hold together, corb, but I think there may be complications with how it plays out in reality.

Firstly, genetics being what it is, if you keep adding the same genes together over time, even good genes, you tend to not end up with a great result. Exhibit A: the Hapsburgs. There is a reason that the most attractive members of most royal families are the ones who married in or who take after the more common of their parents.

Secondly, people move into the elite by a variety of means, and may only have specific genetic advantages while having other disadvantages: one person may become elite based on their physical strength, another on mathematical ability, and a third marries into the elite based on their good looks. The warrior or athlete and the beauty could be both be as dumb as bricks or even just averagely intelligent, while the mathematician could be severely myopic or unattractive (which is highly implausible, of course, because everyone knows that all mathematicians are gorgeous, almost as good looking as astronomers). Moreover, evolution and natural selection are usually quite slow processes - much slower than the formation of elites -- after all, how someone becomes elite has changed dramatically several times over the last few thousand years. Bill Gates - small but smart - would never have got ahead in c1000ad - or, if he did, it would have probably have been in the Church and he would have left no descendents (or he shouldn't have).

And, as you note, there really is no downward pressure on the averagely intelligent out of the elite. They will be just as successful as many very brilliant people because they will have the tutors and the support and the social networks. Most people who have moved in elite academics have met them - sometimes they are students, sometimes they are professors. None are cognitively-impaired or even just below-average, but many are by no means above average. They just were born into the right structure at the right time.

Thirdly, and as I am clearly moving into high-school debating mode, I'll name this point the "Gattaca" point: you just don't know what will happen to people because of their personality or something about them. Successful people have unsuccessful children all the time - maybe some are even unsuccessful because their parents were successful and they had to learn how to strive (I know a few people like this personally). You never know when someone who is otherwise really brilliant has crippling depression which derails their career, or even just plain old lack of self-esteem because they weren't told their whole life how special they were.

Thing is, even if genetics play a part in differentiating members of the elite from non-elite, that part - as in gender inequality - plays such a small and unclear part compared to the really obvious and profound effects of social structures. Talking about it is like talking about a smudge on a table while ignoring the massive gouge down the middle. One day, maybe we will have dealt with all of the structural inequalities and we start looking at the genetic - maybe in the 24th century. But I seriously doubt it.
posted by jb at 1:52 PM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


also, we would have to disaggregate the effects of poverty itself, for which there is a lot of evidence. The stress of being poor - even just the relative poverty of the developed world - has a profound and real physiological effect on children that remains with them for the rest of their lives. (one ref, albeit pop news - I heard more on a radio documentary on poverty).
posted by jb at 1:56 PM on July 27, 2012


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