Joe Mathews: Declining birth rate means fewer future taxpayers

Published: Thursday, Apr. 3, 2014 - 12:00 am

This weekend, The Accident gets hitched.

The Accident is my term of endearment for my baby sister Katie, who arrived, unexpectedly, 11½ years after me and seven years after my brother. She is scheduled to exchange vows Saturday afternoon in L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley with her longtime boyfriend, Matt, in a big family wedding that (my mother would like you to know) is costing a fortune.

I thought this family milestone was a totally unremarkable story – unworthy of a column – until I came across some data on California and its families. In our state, a seemingly conventional marriage is now exceptional. Katie and Matt – who, if encountered on the street, would appear to be fairly conventional millennial professionals – are swimming against the tide.

Marriage rates are declining across the country and the industrialized world, and married couples represent fewer than half of American households. But, in California, the marriage rate has reached almost European lows. There are fewer than six marriages a year now for every 1,000 Californians, putting the state at or near the bottom of the nation. The rate in Arkansas, for example, is nearly twice as high.

And those who are tying the knot here are waiting longer to do so, in part because it takes longer to get through school and find an economic footing. Such waits are long in high-cost places like the Bay Area, where Katie and Matt live. People there sometimes tell her my sister she’s “pretty young” to be getting married. She’s 29, a couple years older than the average Californian bride.

A decline in marriages may not be worrisome in itself, but in California it has been accompanied by a rapid decline in the number of children. The number of children under 10 in Los Angeles County dropped by 17 percent in the last decade. Some demographers have raised alarm that the sliding birth rate and diminished immigration are producing a child shortage in the state that will result in fewer future taxpayers to buy houses and support the retirements of the old.

While the decline of big traditional families has its costs, the rise of other kinds of family arrangements is good news, especially when the alternative might be miserable marriages. Single-person households and households whose members aren’t related are on the rise. Many couples happily remain unmarried. My grandmother, who was married to my grandfather for 59 years until his death, says that if the mores of the 1940s hadn’t required marriage, the two of them might never have bothered.

Non-traditional attitudes about marriage are a California tradition. One reason that we’ve long had liberal marriage laws, like allowing people to get married without producing a public record, is because 19th-century clergy had such trouble convincing Californians to get married. And the state itself was conceived in short and broken marriages. During the Gold Rush, our state, so full of men, had some of the world’s highest divorce rates, since California women could be so choosy about partners.

For all the fluidity in today’s California households, we still yearn to fit our diversity into traditional molds. As Pomona College professor of politics Susan McWilliams pointed out at Pepperdine last week, two of the more popular shows on television right now – ABC’s “Modern Family” and NBC’s “Parenthood” – are about big if unconventional California families that are tight-knit, have three generations living together and are deeply tied to the community.

When we’re investing more venture capital than the rest of America or shielding immigrants from deportation, California exceptionalism is a good thing. But it has a dark side too, from massively overcrowded prisons to the world’s most inflexible initiative process. Our exceptionally dysfunctional governance, in combination with our wide-open culture, can create voids that don’t get filled. They make life – long commutes, the difficulty of finding good schools, the lack of affordable housing – much harder than it has to be.

I even worry about people with the resources of Matt and Katie. They commuted for three years of attending law schools 60 miles apart (he at Davis, she at Berkeley). The law used to be a reliable profession, but California now has a glut of lawyers, nearly twice as many attorneys as there are jobs. So far, they’re among the lucky who still have work, with my sister, in adherence to the family tradition of never turning an elite education into any real money, toiling away in an East Bay public defender’s office.

I’m tempted to use this occasion to give them advice. I might tell them that they should have gobs of California children – but that’s a job for my mother, who has an unsurpassed record of nagging on this and other matters. I might suggest that, once they have gotten married and thus presumably gotten the desire to be different out of their systems, they might switch to a less cutthroat profession.

But I won’t. They’ll continue to do things the hard way. They’re Californians. Mazel tov.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square.

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