Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 28 February 2024


Opinion | The Red-Blue Divide Goes Well Beyond Biden and Trump

A man with his back to the camera looks toward a building with a large American flag hanging in a street-level window.
Credit... Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos

Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C., on politics, demographics and inequality.

One of the major reasons white non-college voters turned to Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 is the fear of lost white hegemony — that the United States will become a majority-minority nation sometime in the near future.

Almost simultaneously, however, the decisively majority-minority work force will be providing the bulk of the revenue going toward Social Security and Medicare.

In other words, the payroll taxes collected from a majority-minority population will be sustaining the white working-class men and women who are still alive by midcentury, dependent on those two programs for half their retirement income and for a large share of their medical costs.

The evolving role of minority groups in the domestic economy is just one example of the profound role births, deaths and rates of immigration play in shaping the balance of power between red and blue America.

The most important shift here and in other developed countries is the steady decline in the number of prime-age workers (from 18 to 64) and the steady growth of the retirement-age population (65 and older).

“U.S. births have fallen steadily since 2007,” Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine, economists at the University of Maryland and Wellesley, wrote in “The Causes and Consequences of Declining U.S. Fertility,” “and the total fertility rate is now well below replacement level — the rate at which the population replaces itself from one generation to the next.”

In a development that does not bode well for future Democrats, Kearney and Levine found that “Hispanic women have experienced the most dramatic recent declines in births.” Reckoned for every 1,000 women of childbearing age, the fertility rate among Hispanic women in 2007 “was 97.4,” Kearney and Levine report, and “it fell to 62.8 by 2020.”

The declining Hispanic fertility rate is one of many demographic shifts in the United States. Some are advantageous to the right, others beneficial to the left.

Take, for example, domestic immigration between states. On the surface, red states are winners, and blue states are losers.

Seven of the 10 states experiencing the largest numbers of migrants from other states between April 2020 and June 2022 were solidly red (Florida, Texas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Idaho, Alabama and Oklahoma), and the other three (Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia) were purple.

Sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter  Get expert analysis of the news and a guide to the big ideas shaping the world every weekday morning.

Conversely, seven of the states experiencing the largest population losses from what demographers call out-migration were blue: California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, Maryland and Minnesota; two were red, Ohio and Louisiana; and one was purple, Michigan.

While these trends benefit red America, increasing its representation in Congress, the influx of liberal voters from blue states like California has proved to be a key factor in moving Nevada, Arizona and Colorado to the left.

William Frey, a demographer and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, pointed out in an email that

while several red states are the big migration gainers, many of their large in-migrant flows — say from California to Texas or New York to Florida — as well as immigrants from abroad — may help to make these states less red. This may have already occurred in Nevada due to its large inflow of Californians.

In addition, Frey provided data showing that interstate migrants are far younger (43 percent are 18 to 29) than resident populations (21 percent 18 to 29), a shot in the arm for Democrats, since young voters tend to be more liberal than their elders.

Douglas Massey, a sociologist at Princeton, described in an email some of the key demographic forces driving partisan trends:

Death rates are also high in the U.S. compared to its peers, and red states have been experiencing higher death rates lately because of the opioid crisis and MAGA’s hostility to public health measures.

A lot is going to depend on patterns and levels of internal and international migration, and that cuts both ways across the red-blue divide. Some red states such as Texas, Florida, Nevada and Utah are growing both from high rates of natural increase (births-deaths) and high total net migration (positive native and foreign migration), while other red states are waning because of low rates of natural increase and net migration (the plains states, Alabama, Mississippi and West Virginia).

In some blue states both natural increase and net migration are low (e.g., California), while others (such as Washington) have relatively high rates of both natural increase and net migration. The political implications are also determined by who is having the babies (immigrants) and who is producing all the deaths (older white boomers), as well as the geography of demographic change. In general, it’s rural areas that are shrinking and metro areas are growing.

In addition to the declining share of the population made up of working-age adults, a second factor is the steadily declining labor-force participation of men, especially men without college degrees.

From 1950 to 2020, male work force participation rates fell to 71.9 percent from 88.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Female participation rates grew steadily to 62.2 percent in 2010 from 33.9 percent in 1959 but are expected to decline slowly to 56.8 percent by 2050.

Declining labor force participation is heavily stratified by education. In 2022, 77.6 percent of men with college degrees were in the labor force, 11.6 percentage points higher than the 66.0 percent of men with high school diplomas who were working.

The steady growth of the share of men effectively abandoning work is, according to Massey, a symptom of a larger phenomenon: the declining “ability of men to make material supports to family welfare through employment.”

Black Americans, Massey wrote, “were the canaries in the coal mine in the 1960s and 1970s as the earliest victims of job loss through deindustrialization, de-unionization and suburbanization. During the 1980s and 1990s and early 2000s it was computerization and automation that began to cut into the employment prospects of midlevel white collar bureaucrats.”

These trends, in Massey’s view, have been devastating to the lives of working-class men:

The loss of the ability to provide the material foundations of family life strike at the heart of intrafamily power dynamics and male identity, creating a huge social and psychological threat that men respond to by acting out in dysfunctional ways, making them even less desirable as marital partners.

Over the past five decades, the U.S. has evolved a dual family system of unstable precarious working- and middle-class households headed by precariously employed women in which precariously employed men move in and out after successively fathering children, and a stable professional-class system in which employed, well-educated married couples lavish attention and resources on a small number of children, facilitated by the outsourcing of household work to lower-class women (heavily immigrants).

Andrew Owen, a sociologist at Northwestern, citing Melissa Kearney’s work, argued in an email “that low-status women look around and don’t find promising marriage prospects because of the economic and social precarity of low socioeconomic status men.”

That closely relates to what Owen described as a growing consensus among social scientists that “fertility rises in good economic conditions.”

Nathan Seltzer, a postdoctoral scholar in the department of demography at the University of California, Berkeley, contends, however, that other factors are influencing fertility rates.

In “Beyond the Great Recession: Labor Market Polarization and Ongoing Fertility Decline in the United States,” Seltzer writes that even in good economic times, specific events can result in fertility declines:

In the years since the Great Recession, social scientists have anticipated that economic recovery in the United States, characterized by gains in employment and median household income, would augur a reversal of declining fertility trends. However, the expected postrecession rebound in fertility rates has yet to materialize.

Despite the improving economy, Seltzer reports that

changes in industry composition — specifically, the loss of manufacturing and other goods-producing businesses — have a larger effect on total fertility rates than changes in the unemployment rate for all racial/ethnic groups. Because structural changes in labor markets are more likely to be sustained over time — in contrast to unemployment rates, which fluctuate with economic cycles — further reductions in unemployment are unlikely to reverse declining fertility trends.

Just as labor force participation is stratified by education, so too is fertility, but in the opposite direction.

In 2021, the Centers for Disease Control reported that “total lifetime fertility rates were highest among women with a 12th-grade education or less (2,791 per 1000 women) and declined with increasing education through those with an associate degree (1,312) and bachelor’s degree (1,284).”

Looked at from a broader perspective, declining birthrates are intensifying competition for resources between the young and the old, according to Philip Pilkington, a conservative economist and the author of “The Reformation in Economics.”

“A war is slowly brewing,” Pilkington argued in a 2021 article, “Generation Against Generation.” “It pits parents against their children and children against their parents.”

As the share of the population made up of working-age men and women declines and the share of the elderly grows, Pilkington foresees a future

in which overworked young people may see nominal wage increases. But asset markets will inflate more rapidly than their incomes, and the rise in the prices of goods will outstrip their wage gains. In other words, they must run in place with lower real incomes while they rent property from older people because they are priced out of the property market. A young person in this situation might do his best to uphold the Fifth Commandment, but in all likelihood he will nevertheless see his situation as grossly unfair.

Pilkington elaborated on these themes in a 2022 article, “Capitalism’s Overlooked Contradiction: Wealth and Demographic Decline,” in which he made the argument that growing national affluence contains the seeds of economic decay.

He put this in straightforward terms: “As capitalist growth proceeds and a society becomes wealthier, the birthrate falls; eventually, as the overall population ages and fewer people join the work force, economic growth collapses.”

Countries that were among the most successful in transitioning from agrarian poverty to advanced economies, Pilkington wrote, “have experienced astonishing declines in birthrates. South Korea and Taiwan have the lowest fertility rates in the world, at around 0.8 and 1.1 births per woman. China’s fertility rate, estimated at 1.16 in 2021, has been well below replacement for years.”

Pilkington then asked, “What do the data tell us about American birthrates?” He answered his own question:

While there is no statistical relationship between regional wealth and fertility rates, there is an obvious, strong relationship between birthrates and income group. In 2017, households with an income of less than $10,000 per year had a birthrate of 66.4 children per 1,000 women, compared to a rate of 58 for households in the midrange of $35,000 — 49,999, and of 44 for the top income group of $200,000 or more.

The most striking intranational trend, however, is not class-based but cultural: The fertility rate of Americans varies significantly according to their religious affiliation. A very interesting picture emerges from the data. For one, the largest religious groups in the American population — Protestant, Catholic, “nones” and atheist/agnostic — have a combined fertility slightly below replacement rate. On the other hand, “believing” religious groups who adhere to traditional ways of living have birthrates far above replacement, including traditionalist Catholics (3.6), Orthodox Jews (3.3), Mormons (2.8) and Muslims (2.8), not to mention voluntarily isolating sects like the Amish.”

The implications should warm conservative hearts. “The current tendency for American culture to secularize will not last forever,” Pilkington wrote:

At a certain point, groups with a more robust capacity to reproduce will replace groups with less robust capacities in a simple Darwinian manner. Currently, these groups represent a very small fraction of the American population, but because human reproduction follows a multiplicative path, these groups could grow rapidly in numbers, especially as the other groups decline.

Conversely, Sarah Pachman, the research and policy director at Princeton’s Center for Research on Child and Family Wellbeing, made the case in an email that Democrats have a demographic advantage “because fertility rates are higher among non-U.S.-born mothers, who are much more likely to report that the Democratic, rather than Republican, Party represents their views and parents often pass their political views on to their children.”

While many immigrant women do not identify with either political party, Pachman provided The Times with data from the November 2023 Kaiser Family Foundation/Los Angeles Times Survey of Immigrants showing that “twice as many immigrants say the Democratic Party (32 percent) represents their own views than the Republicans (16 percent), though many say, ‘neither party’ (25 percent) or they are not sure (27 percent).”

The survey asked, “How well do you think the Democratic Party represents the interests of immigrants?” Forty-six percent of adult immigrants said “very” or “somewhat” well, and 22 percent said “not at all well” or “not too well.”

Asked the same question about the Republican Party, 20 percent said “very” or “somewhat” well, and 45 percent said “not at all well” or “not too well.”

Brandon Wagner, a sociologist at Texas Tech, pointed out in an email some of the fertility patterns that benefit Republicans, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control, that “overall, red states tend to have higher fertility rates than do blue states.”

In addition, Wagner pointed to the work of Ron Lesthaeghe and Lisa Neidert, which shows that “the second demographic transition (the postponement of both marriage and parenthood, low total fertility, lower teenage fertility, higher levels of unmarried cohabitation and procreation among cohabitors) has become highly correlated with voting patterns at national elections.”

Wagner noted that “places with delayed marriage, lower fertility, higher cohabitation and so on tend to vote more liberal than do places with opposite family and fertility patterns.”

From this perspective, the United States is enmeshed in an ideological and demographic struggle between high-fertility conservative, less well-educated regions of the nation and liberal, low-fertility, well-educated urban regions.

On the surface, Republicans would seem to have the advantage, but it’s not that simple. The young are moving decidedly to the left, and the growing share of the electorate composed of the college educated is benefiting Democrats.

For the moment, this battle is a stalemate, which is reflected in the closeness of contemporary elections.

Lyman Stone, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, captured this moment of stasis in the conclusion of his 2020 essay “The Conservative Fertility Advantage”:

The conservative fertility advantage probably will not give conservatives some inevitable long-term political edge. Fertility rates are falling for conservatives just as much as liberals. Given the size of the fertility differential between conservatives and liberals, it doesn’t actually take a large amount of ideology switching to offset this higher birthrate. Thus, while conservatives may wish that their fertility advantage could afford a durable political majority, that hope is probably just as fleeting as the now-silly-sounding claims of progressives a decade ago that immigration would create a durable Democratic majority. That’s because, at least right now, conservative parents have not been sufficiently successful in keeping their kids in the fold.

More on demographics and politics

No comments:

Post a Comment