Bill Whalen: Gov. Brown has a point about low birthrates among California’s well-to-do

08/21/2014 12:00 AM

08/20/2014 2:16 PM

I don’t like to play the “imagine if a Republican said this” card – whining being an unproductive pursuit in politics and in life. But consider this passage from a speech Gov. Jerry Brown delivered in late June:

“I don’t know what the affluent families are doing. They’re not producing or something, because half the kids in the schools are from low-income families. What can I say? There it is.”

The governor’s aside was part of an eight-minute speech before the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials’ annual conference in San Diego that was vintage Brown in at least two regards.

First, the speech was full of stream-of-consciousness, don’t stop-for-applause observations that covered everything from Spaniards’ intentions in 18th century California to what Brown is doing for undocumented immigrants in the 21st century.

Second, as with most Brown rhetorical redirects, he has a point.

In the Golden State, fertile describes Silicon Valley’s imagination, but not our population. Californians gave birth to about 504,000 babies in 2013 – or 13.1 children for every 1,000 residents. It’s the state’s lowest birthrate in well more than 80 years.

The group showing the biggest decline? Non-Hispanic whites, who tend to be financially better off.

Here’s the good thing about eight-minute speeches: They don’t leave time for solutions. And in this case, there isn’t a government fix for a sluggish white fertility rate – not unless we want to rewire modern society.

If Gov. Brown wants California’s wealthier residents to reproduce more frequently, perhaps the fix begins by redefining the challenge. It’s not so much “affluent families” as it is individual men and women making choices not available a generation ago – professional opportunities, scientific advancements and changing societal mores that no longer judge childless adults as spinsters or misfits. And in case you forgot, we just had a presidential election that pivoted on this very topic – the availability of birth control and dictating reproductive rights.

Brown also would have to change his party’s mindset. Ever since Roe v. Wade, the Democratic battle cry has been “keep government out of the bedroom.” A more fertile California might require precisely the opposite.

Here are some suggestions for how Sacramento can get us closer to the ideal of the wealthy getting busier. First, repeal Proposition 30. Nothing kills the libido quicker than dimming the lights, turning up Sinatra and then looking at a depleted wealth management account. Cutting taxes stimulates an economy; maybe it also stimulates hormones.

And if that doesn’t work? Go to the ballot in 2016 with a different mood-enhancer – doubling the millionaire tax for every year a child’s not produced.

Also, do to the wealthiest Californians’ fondness for birth control what public opinion has done to tobacco and recently to soda pop – tax it, demonize it. From Pacific Heights to the Pacific Palisades, in every Whole Foods and pharmacy where wealthy folks buy goods and services, place an extra levy on condoms and pills and birth-control devices.

These suggestions are facetious, of course. Still, it would be intriguing if Brown took up the cause of California’s declining birth rate in his final term as governor. In a roundabout way, it gets to the issue of the state’s economic foundation. And Brown is emblematic of the symptom he laments – he didn’t marry until two months past his 67th birthday, after 15 years of dating and a relationship that didn’t produce any progeny.

So why not start a public dialogue? Better yet, why not include first lady Anne Gust Brown, the embodiment of a modern woman? Perhaps “two is the new one” is what it takes to get wealthy Californians to start thinking plus-one.

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