- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

First of two parts

The Census Bureau’s latest assessment of the American family is so, well, factual.

“As Baby Boomers Age, Fewer Families Have Children Under 18 at Home,” is the headline for the bureau’s latest data dump.

Why are there more childless American homes? An aging population and “changing fertility patterns,” says bureau analyst Rose Kreider.

What’s the big whoop about childless homes, readers may ask. Lots of young people aren’t ready to have kids yet; get off their case. Empty-nest baby boomers and long-living grandparents explain the rest of the story.

The problem is this — America’s “social contract” has gotten wildly out of balance, says Phillip Longman, senior fellow at the New America Foundation think tank.

In fact, it’s so out of whack that the nation needs a brand-new “family-based” social contract.

The next generation is already “highly encumbered by poverty, family break-up, a rising national debt,” Mr. Longman and David Gray write in their November report, “A Family-Based Social Contract.”

“Justice, and prudence, requires that we make a significant investment to restore and strengthen the American family,” they conclude.

I like the analysis by these two “pragmatic progressives.”

In earlier years, Mr. Longman recently told me, the American family was viewed as an immutable, self-renewing bedrock institution. Marriage, parenthood and family were respected, even revered. A good community encompassed stable families, friends, religious life, public service and a thriving work sector.

Today, the cultural paradigm has shifted. The country deeply values its educated, moral, socially competent (and taxable) young workers, but it barely acknowledges the people who created, nurtured, loved and invested in these young workers for 20 years.

“If you think about it, parents make a tremendous sacrifice in their time, money and careers to raise children,” Mr. Longman said. “And yet society really gives them no compensation. … It essentially taxes parenthood.”

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In fact, when it comes to Social Security, parents — especially women — often get the smallest benefit checks because they left the paid labor force to spend time unpaid parenting, he said.

Thus, the family and the whole nurturing sector of society are “simply taken for granted,” as if they will always be there, sacrificing themselves to produce the next generation with scant assistance from society at large.

Census data is now showing that more Americans are deciding that having a family isn’t worth the hassle.

Already, young Americans delay marriage until into their late 20s. Then, even when they marry, they are delaying parenthood.

“The instinct is that you don’t reproduce until you have this safe place, this nest, for your children,” said Mr. Longman. “In our culture, that has come to mean we need the house with the picket fence, with the good school district. … But the problem is you’re 35 years old before you have a chance to get there.”

Unfortunately for young Americans, reproductive biology doesn’t care about picket fences, car loans or college degrees. Female fertility starts to decline after age 27. An array of sexually transmitted diseases is lying in wait in the sexual social scene, including some that can silently sterilize women.

Even if a young married couple is healthy and just decides to have their first child at age 32, they run into the demographic adage that fertility delayed is fertility denied. In other words, if a couple has their first child late in life, there are many reasons why a second or third child may never appear.

The new census report shows that childlessness is at record high levels. In 1976, for instance, 10 percent of women aged 40 to 44 were childless. By 2006, it was 20 percent.

Civilizations don’t last long without a solid foundation of family units. What can be done?

Next week: More on the new family-based social contract.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.