Could government policy changes like a "Mr. Potter Tax" and college-debt forgiveness tied to childbearing rebuild America's traditional family culture? Or are "cultural headwinds" so great that the nation is unlikely to ever find its way back home?
Questions like these abounded at a Capitol Hill symposium on Friday, sponsored by "The Family in America," a public-policy journal published by the Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society.
Sobering statistics undergirded the session: The U.S. birthrate fell to its lowest recorded level in 2011, which means no developed nation in the world now has "replacement-level" fertility of 2.1 children per woman, said Allan Carlson, president of the center and editor of the journal.
Also, of the U.S. babies born, four in 10 are to single mothers, which means fathers are detached from their families. This raises the risk that children will be raised without their fathers and fosters a public-welfare system for the single-parent families.
Then, as people enter the labor market, they find that it is "designed for people who don't give birth," i.e., men, said Jennifer Roback Morse, president and founder of the Ruth Institute.
After spending years in college, people in their late 20s and early 30s are eager and expected to advance their careers, she said. But the peak years for career advancement for men are also the peak years for fertility for women, she said. Since neither higher education nor the labor market promotes childbearing, far too many young women end up using chemicals to stave off pregnancy and delay marriage until they feel their lives are in order — which means they start trying to have their first children at age 35, when fertility has dropped significantly.
The real "war on women" is not about zero-priced contraception, said Mrs. Morse. "The real war is a war against women's fertility."
New York Times columnist David Brooks cited "incredibly powerful, cultural headwinds" against marriage and childbearing.
Individualism, personal happiness and personal freedom are now paramount in life, he said, and, in such a climate, having children means people trade their personal happiness for a deeper fulfillment.
If the nation wants to get people to have children, "the easiest thing to do is have them unconsciously absorb a "life script" that says it's normal to finish high school, go to college, get married and have children, he said. But right now, "we don't have a firm pathway" for young people.
Mr. Carlson offered several policy suggestions to encourage men and women to marry and have children in financially stable homes. One idea was to raise the $1,000 per-child tax credit to $1,250, and offer the break to all parents who pay income tax. Alternatively, he said, Congress could assess a tax increase "on the childless rich, and call it the 'Mr. Potter Tax,'" after the "child-indifferent plutocrat" in the movie "It's A Wonderful Life."
Other suggestions were to forgive a portion of a parent's federal student-loan debt for every child they have, and begin tying Social Security benefits not just to earned income, but to the number of children a person raised to successful adulthood. That way, parents who heavily invested in the raising of the next generation of workers would get fatter payouts in their senior years.
Political scientist Charles Murray, author of "Coming Apart," lamented America's worrisome family demographics, but said there was reason for optimism.
The 20th century could be seen as America's "adolescence," which would explain why there was so much public rebellion against so many traditional values, including religion, marriage and family, he said.
But the culture may finally be at its nadir, and ready to start growing up, "just as adolescents grow out of adolescence," he said. "I think that the yearning to see if the universe makes sense is not one that is easily extinguished in spirit."
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Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor. Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...
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