Suburbs Emptied of Children?

USA Today ran an interesting article (http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/census/2011-06-03-fewer-children-census-suburbs_n.htm) pointing out one of the findings from the new Census data being released: “Children, the mainstay of suburbia and residential neighborhoods across the nation for more than a half-century, are fewer and increasingly sparse in many places.” Specifically, “the share of households with children dropped from 36% in 2000 to 33.5%.” Allan Carlson, director of Sutherland’s Center for Community and Economy, has pointed out (http://www.profam.org/docs/acc/thc_acc_frc_baileypark_0303.htm) that American suburbs have been, and could again be, “vital centers for family living.” That’s less likely if they are filled with “more households with dogs than children” as the USA Today story reports.

The article points to an aging population, parents having children later in life and a drop in fertility as the likely causes of the change. It notes that not all communities will have this same experience (many Utahns will already know this) because some of what is happening is that people are sorting themselves into communities, some with children and an increasing number without.

Another Census-related news report (http://www.oregonlive.com/news/oregonian/david_sarasohn/index.ssf/2011/06/marriage_like_politics_runs_sh.html) indicates that “for the first time, the majority of American households are not married couples.” The article (in a silly and condescending tome) fingers aging and later marriage rates as factors in the change.

Both articles raise the specter of economic downturn as a possible explanatory factor. This is the preferred explanation of the “alternative families” crowd, probably because it has an air of inevitability about it and because it allows them to make the charge that society need not be concerned about strengthening families, only about redistributing more money through government channels.

Economic factors are surely at work, but they are not necessarily the best explanation. David Lapp at the Institute for American Values looks (http://familyscholars.org/author/dlapp/) more closely at available data and suggests a very compelling additional factor in the marriage changes: “What the conventional wisdom often misses is how the normalization of sex and children outside of marriage ‘cheapens’ marriage, so that young people sense no rush to get married. If we can have sex and children outside of marriage, and if we love each other and are committed to each other (at least we think we are), what is the ‘added value’ of marriage?”

It seems likely that something similar may be happening with children. If young adults are taking longer to accept responsibilities for family life (as evidenced by later marriages), it is not surprising that they would also put off having children.

In a recent book (http://www.amazon.com/Premarital-Sex-America-Americans-Marrying/dp/0199743282) Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker describe the change in “social scripts” available to young adults. They point out that this demographic is not likely to make choices they do not see modeled or that they become convinced are not really feasible. Dr. Regnerus and Dr. Uecker show how media and peer influences can create a compelling sense that “everyone” is engaging in sexual relationships prior to marriage and that this is just the way things are done: “If a critical mass of men and women enjoy an extended series of sexual relationships and expect sex fairly promptly within them, it becomes quite difficult for a minority to do otherwise.”

My guess is that something similar is happening in other social trends – if a critical mass of society treats later marriage, later childbearing and smaller family size as the norm (and deviations from the norm as unwise or even bizarre), it becomes that much more difficult to individuals to imagine themselves doing something different. It’s not that they’ve lost the power or lack the resources to do something different; it’s just that the idea occurs to them less often or not at all.

The proportion of children under 18 in Utah (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/49000.html) is well above the national average, so perhaps the state will feel some of these changes less significantly, but it is unlikely the state will be unaffected. What all of this portends remains to be seen, but we can guess that life may be very different – and with fewer children, far less rich – than it has been.

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