Historians have long observed that economic changes impact family structures. Almost a century ago the historian Will Durant suggested that our transition from an agrarian society to an industrial one would widen the gap between biological maturity and economic maturity and this would impact traditional morality.
He noted that in an agrarian society children are an asset; they can help do farm work and will generally contribute more than they consume. In a primarily urban industrial society or post- industrial society children are more of a liability; they consume more than they produce.
Almost two decades ago MIT economist Lester Thurow noted that "competitive individualism" is growing at the expense of "family solidarity."
Economics provided incentives for men to abandon family relations and responsibilities: "When men abandon their families their standard of living rises 73 percent -- although the family left behind falls 42 percent." This is because children have ceased to be "profit centers" and have become "cost centers." He noted family breakdown was a worldwide phenomenon; in Beijing, China, the divorce rate rose from 12 percent to 24 percent in just four years. He predicted that since traditional families are not consistent with today's economic realities, the one- income middle-class family would become extinct.
Whereas females provide an increasing share of family income, record numbers of females have gone to college. Yet sadly, for untold numbers of females their exorbitant students debt -- sometimes over $100,000 -- causes them to abandon plans of raising a family since they must make payments after completing college. Moreover, there is evidence that the financial value of a degree, particularly an unused degree, can depreciate quickly over time.
Thus, planning to have a career after raising children will often be problematic.
Today, more women attend college than men for reasons explained by John Schmitt and Heather Boushey. (See "The College Conundrum: Why the Benefits of College May Not Be So Clear, Especially to Men") While on average both male and female college graduates earn far more than non-graduates, averages sometimes obscure the important realties of those on the top and bottom.
Income inequality has increased among college graduates, especially males. One out of five male college graduates will earn no more than if he had skipped college. Females have better odds that college will pay off financially; only one in seven females will not benefit. Other things (family income etc.) being equal, college is a greater risk for males than females. Unlike an insurance company, which knows that on balance it can profit by spreading risks over many individuals and long time periods, the non-affluent male must determine if it is worth exhausting his life savings and assuming debt when there is 20 percent chance of no pay-off. This reality will adversely affect the ability of men to be the primary providers for families in the future.
In addition to the incentives created by the broad economic forces cited above, specific industries have had a deleterious affect on families. In the 1870s, U.S. women organized to shut down saloons since they knew first-hand alcohol was linked to wife battering, child abuse, poverty, crime, indebtedness, etc. They saw that some private-sector activities destroyed countless families. (Certainly it was not the government that produced the alcohol or saloons; it was the private sector.) They saw that protecting families and advancing civilization entailed limiting market forces. Eventually their work resulted in Prohibition (1920).
Today, in addition to alcohol (and drugs), other immensely profitable private-sector industries have flourished to the detriment of families. Credit card debt, which has become the new social safety net, has strained and broken untold numbers of marriages. The same can be said of pornography. Neither of these industries would have grown to their current dimensions if they were unprofitable. Perhaps it is no coincidence that just as faith in markets have grown, and there has been a wider acceptance of libertarian philosophy, families have weakened. Ironically, some, who masquerade as defenders of traditional families, are "free-market" cheerleaders and are blind to the damage market forces inflict on traditional families.
The environment furnishes countless examples where economic forces and private industries, with minimal or no government involvement, have created enormous problems, such as water and air pollution, soil erosion, forest depletion, etc. The government is left to ameliorate or cope with these problems created by the private sector.
Space limitations preclude discussing all the ways that market forces and the private sector damage families, but the pattern identified in environmental matters pertains: economic forces and parts of the private sector will make a mess by damaging families and the government will incur astronomical costs trying to cope with the damage.
Jones lives in West Haven.