Are Gays and Divorce Destroying the Welfare States?

If Janice Crouse of Concerned Woman for America is to be believed, the alleged "decline in marriage and breakdown of the family" hasn't merely hurt individuals but "undermined social institutions and shaken the stability and economic viability of nations."

We know, of course, that "decline in marriage and breakdown of the family" is code for things like equality of rights for gay people, the right to seek divorce, access to birth control and reproductive freedom. Exactly how do these shake "the stability and economic viability of nations?"

Crouse claims it is because welfare states are "facing demographic time bombs with dismal fertility rates and an increase in the so-called old-age dependence ratio...."

The problem with Crouse's scenario is that policies violating her narrow view of "family values" are not responsible for the decline in fertility rates. Anyone familiar with the topic knows there has been a long-term decline in fertility rates going back 200 years in the developed world, the only place welfare states exist.

This decline in birth rates predates the policies she attacks. This doesn't mean there isn't a demographic time bomb in welfare states. Those programs tended to be created during the Baby Boom years (1946 to 1964), and policy wonks assumed birth rates would continue to create an expanding workforce able to support the retired and needy. However, the boom was followed by a baby bust, while medical technology and good living conditions extended old age. Even with diminishing birth rates, populations expanded massively, driven by large declines in death rates. A crisis has been brewing ever since.

While higher birth rates would alleviate some of the stress, the reality is that trends in lowering birth rates began long before the policies that Crouse would damn. Reproductive rights, divorce, and same-sex marriage were not factors two centuries ago, when the decline began. If anything is to blame, it is liberal capitalism that increased prosperity, lowered the economic incentives to have large families, produced the knowledge and resources to limit pregnancies, promoted equality for women and widespread education. Women married later in their life. Multiple factors related to increased individual freedom and prosperity helped limit the number of births. Where the average American woman would endure seven births in the 1800s, today it is likely to be one or two, with some choosing more. It is a choice for most women today, not a requirement; and most want to be more than just breeding stock.

What Crouse cannot explain is how the policies she lamented are responsible for the global decline in fertility rates. Even nations that are not known for social tolerance, women's rights, or gay rights, such as Iran, have seen the same decline. Under Islamist theocracy the TFR was 6.5 in 1991; by 2009 it was 1.7. Surely Crouse does not believe that Iran implemented easy divorce, women's lib, and gay marriage?

Maybe women aren't considering "the economic vitality of nations," but there was a time when conservatives thought putting individual rights ahead of collectivistic nationalism was a good thing. What makes these choices possible for women were trends and principles put into place long ago. Policies from the last half-century have had little impact on the trend that has been in place since the 1800s.

Considering the emphasis religious-right groups put on same-sex marriage, I thought it useful to check birth rates in nations at the time they instituted marriage equality and compare them to today. Has there been a difference in trends already in place?

Canada's first same-sex marriage was in 2001. The total fertility rate at the time was 1.51 children per woman. After eight years of same-sex marriage, birth rates saw an increase to 1.7 children, but this is around levels from 10 years before marriage equality, so there was no significant change. Belgium legalized same-sex marriage in 2003. Ten years prior, the TFR was 1.6. The last statistic the World Bank has on TFR is for 2009, when it was 1.8. After same-sex marriage, birth rates in Belgium increased. The Netherlands first started looking into marriage equality in 1995 and eventually passed a law in 2000. Ten years prior, in 1990, the TFR was 1.6. It stood at 1.7 in 1995, and today it is 1.8, so birth rates increased in the Netherlands since marriage equality. (All fertility rates courtesy of the World Bank.)

The reality is that most "welfare states" don't have marriage equality. Those that do, such as Norway and Sweden, implemented those policies very recently -- 2008 for Norway and 2009 for Sweden -- much too soon to make any legitimate pronouncements. The earliest Scandinavian state to come close to marriage equality was Denmark, which created "registered partnerships" in 1989. At that time the TFG was 1.7; after 20 years of gay partnerships the TFR rate stood at 1.8.

These facts are even clearer when we look at the nations Crouse singled out for concern: Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain. In Portugal same-sex marriage has only been legal for one year, hardly long enough to be responsible for anything. In Ireland same-sex marriage is not yet legal, nor is the crisis in Ireland due to total fertility rate, since its TFR is on par with that of the United States: 2.1. In Italy same-sex marriage is not legal and thus not related to their economic woes. In fact, in the last few years Italy has had a very slight increase in the TFR, from 1.3 to 1.4. The economic crisis in Greece is unrelated to marriage equality, since there isn't any. Spain legalized same-sex marriage in 2005. Ten years prior the TFR was 1.2. By 2009 it had increased to 1.4. In fact, most of the nations that implemented marriage equality saw slight increases in their fertility rates, not declines.

Welfare states face demographic problems. They do so because birth rates are not high enough to cover the costs of extended life spans. But these two demographic trends predate any of the policies that the religious right blames for the "crisis of the family." They may lament marriage equality, unmarried mothers, divorce rates, or even welfare, but none of these policies be held responsible for creating the conflicting trends in the welfare state that concern Crouse.

A more in-depth fisking of Crouse and her claims can be found here.