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America: the birth of two nations

Credit: Mike Simons / Getty

October 11, 2018   3 mins

The nomination (and confirmation) of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court may have split America right down the middle, but today’s UnPacked is not about that. Rather, in referring to the birth of two nations, I mean it literally.

The citizens of the two Americas are born into the world in profoundly different circumstances. Quoctrung Bui and Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times have the details:

“Becoming a mother used to be seen as a unifying milestone for women in the United States. But a new analysis of four decades of births shows that the age that women become mothers varies significantly by geography and education. The result is that children are born into very different family lives, heading for diverging economic futures.

“First-time mothers are older in big cities and on the coasts, and younger in rural areas and in the Great Plains and the South. In New York and San Francisco, their average age is 31 and 32. In Todd County, S.D., and Zapata County, Tex., it’s half a generation earlier, at 20 and 21…”

Across the nation as a whole, the average age of first birth is 30.3 for college educated women but 23.8 for those without a college degree.

As the authors say “the difference in when women start families cuts along many of the same lines that divide the country in other ways”.

Why is education so important in determining age of first birth? One explanation is that it comes down to opportunity cost:

“People with a higher socioeconomic status ‘just have more potential things they could do instead of being a parent, like going to college or grad school and having a fulfilling career,’ said Heather Rackin, a sociologist at Louisiana State University who studies fertility. ‘Lower-socioeconomic-status people might not have as many opportunity costs — and motherhood has these benefits of emotional fulfillment, status in their community and a path to becoming an adult.’”

Another factor is marriage. Higher income, more highly educated couples are more likely to get married and to delay having children until they do. For many lower income, less educated women their is little prospect of marriage to delay having children for – the long-term decline in marriage having gone much further among poorer Americans than richer ones.

It’s a reminder that inequality is not just about differences in income and wealth, but also the associated differences in life experience. That’s something that Benjamin Disraeli understood when he described the social divides of 19th-century Britain:

“Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws: the rich and the poor.”

Much has been said about the “different food” and “different manners” on either side of the great divide, but, to return 21st century America, it is the “different breeding” that may prove most significant:

“The law professors June Carbone and Naomi Cahn described in a 2010 book how red and blue families were living different lives. The biggest differentiating factor, they said, was the age that mothers had children. Young mothers are more likely to be conservative and religious, to value traditional gender roles and to reject abortion.”

This is the irony of two nations America: the poorer nation has socially conservative beliefs – and is thereby anathematised by the cultural elite; the richer nation exhibits socially conservative behaviour – and thereby reaps the economic benefits. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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