Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Playing Connect-The-Dots

It's funny how news stories look completely different, sometimes, when you string them together in a line.

Garance Franke-Ruta brought my attention to a David Brooks column in which he waxes rhapsodic about a phenomenon he calls "natalism," in which white people move to the suburbs and have babies. (As Slacktivist points out, this is supposed to be a novel phenomenon?) It turns out, from what I can gather from Brooks's column, that only white suburbanites really find parenthood "enriching and elevating" in a spiritual sense. Seriously: Brooks makes it clear that he's only talking approvingly about higher white fertility rates. (Garance did the work of tracking down the white supremacist Brooks cites, so, mercifully, I don't have to.)

It also turns out that these white suburban "natalists" tend to vote Republican. Brooks suggests that this is because, when people become parents, they are driven to protect their children from pernicious influences like Janet Jackson's boob and the First Amendment.

But I got to thinking about another interpretation, based on a chart I'd seen at Daily Kos, just yesterday. It turns out that, in addition to carrying "the 19 states with the highest white fertility rates, and 25 of the top 26," Bush also just happened to carry 20 of the top 21 states with the highest teen pregnancy rates. And in addition to winning the "16 states with the lowest [white] fertility rates," John Kerry also won 14 of the 16 states with the lowest teen pregnancy rates. Hmm. Suddenly Red-State "natalism" seems a lot less desirable.

(And why is the teenage birthrate so high in the Bible Belt? Maybe because of the questionable things they're learning in those popular Red State abstinence-only sex ed classes.)

But the mention of classes reminds me of yet another well-known difference between Red States and Blue States. (See what I mean about how these news stories cascade, in my head?) Kerry mostly took the 10 states placing the highest value on education, while Bush took most of the bottom 10. We know that women who are more highly educated have fewer children than women with less education. In fact, worldwide, the education and empowerment of women is one of the strongest predictors of fertility rates. Put simply, women who have more options, more freedom, and more social power have fewer children.

(What's the moral pointed out in that abstinence-only curriculum, again? "Occasional suggestions and assistance may be alright, but too much of it will lessen a man's confidence or even turn him away from his princess." Because, apparently, if you're going to keep the birth rate up, you've got to keep the women down.)

My research also came up with the grisly statistic that infant mortality is 57% higher in Red States than Blue States. I don't think I want to poke at that one any more closely, except to say that high infant mortality rates and higher fertility tend to co-occur.

So the more I poke at Brooks's assumption that higher fertility rates, excuse me, higher white fertility rates say something good about Bush states, the less justified it seems. I'm not saying that I've got the definitive explanation for why birth rates are higher in Bush country, but it does seem likely that it involves something less sweet and simple than a starry-eyed belief in parenthood as "enriching and elevating."

But that may just be me: barefoot, pregnant, and hanging my Ph.D. diploma on the wall of an urban Blue State home. What do I know about natalism?