The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Will Welfare State Retrenchment Revive Families?


In How the West Really Lost God, the social critic Mary Eberstadt argues that the decline of religious observance and the decline of intact biological families are interrelated phenomena. We know that the religiously observant tend to have larger families than the unaffiliated, which has led many to conclude that religiosity drives decisions about family formation. Yet Eberstadt suggests that the decision to form families also inclines individuals towards embracing and sustaining religious belief. While it is often observed that industrialization and urbanization are associated with secularization, Eberstadt maintains that what she calls the “Family Factor” is the mechanism through with these phenomena shape religious belief. That is, while industrialization, urbanization, and rising affluence might encourage a shift from large families to small families, as the opportunity cost associated with child-rearing becomes more onerous, the shift from large families to small families, and to pervasive childlessness, might in turn reduce the salience of religious belief. For example, parents concerned with the moral education of their children might be particularly invested in the normative structures and communities built around the major monotheistic religions. Though Eberstadt is very modest in her claims, her thesis strikes me as plausible. 

As family decline has put fiscal pressure on cradle-to-grave welfare states, which aim to replicate many of the caregiving functions that had traditionally been performed by kin-based social networks, Eberstadt raises the possibility that traditional families might experience a revival in a new article in the Weekly Standard:

If the welfare states of the West finally do implode, it’s hard to think of any institution but the family that could step into that vacuum. When politics forces the truth that taking care of one’s own is less ruinous than having the state do it, it’s just possible that personal choices could come to reflect that fact.

Might divorce rates go down—as they did, suggestively enough, following the crash of 2008? Similarly, if there is a world after the welfare state, might there be earlier marriage and more of it, as the (unsubsidized) single life becomes less tenable? Or consider the less tangible ways in which a world without a viable cradle-to-grave safety net could reinvigorate family ties. Might the unreliability of the state lead people to look nearer for emotional and social sustenance—meaning less family breakup, maybe even a rise in the birth rate as insurance against the loneliness and uncertainty of old age?

Of course, Eberstadt’s speculation rests on an implosion of the welfare state. Even if sluggish growth continues, absolute gains in living standards over time will likely continue to be fairly high, per Scott Winship’s essay on “The Affluent Economy.” So while the welfare state might retrench in some domains, it seems more likely than not that it will expand in others. The segments of society that are the most educated and affluent continue to enjoy stable lifetime partnerships, and the segments of society that are more vulnerable might find it very difficult to reconstitute the robust kinship networks of earlier eras. Assuming the retrenchment of the welfare state occurs in progressive fashion, in which high-earners receive smaller transfers and pay somewhat higher taxes than they have to date while low-earners are largely spared the need to “fend for themselves,” retrenchment might reinforce the current pattern rather than lead to a reinvigoration of family life as such. Some, including the New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey (about whom I’ll have more to say in the coming weeks), might argue that we’ve already seen a retrenchment of public social expenditures and public investment in the high-poverty urban communities most directly impacted by family decline, in the early 1980s, and that this retrenchment wasn’t accompanied by a revival of families. Others would argue that the retrenchment of that era was mild compared to what we might see in Europe and the U.S. over the coming decade. Regardless, for Eberstadt’s scenario to really be put to the test, the welfare state would have to be in even more parlous shape than it’s in, at least in the U.S. Japan is a good example of how a society can endure sluggish growth and family decline without sparking a cultural transformation. That said, the reinvigoration of family life Eberstadt has in mind strikes me as an obviously attractive propsect, so one hopes that it can occur even if the U.S. and other market democracies experience an economic revival. 

Part of me thinks that Eberstadt is right and that welfare state retrenchment really could lead to a family revival, but that this would be a long and arduous process. It’s hard to imagine modern electorates tolerating the short- and medium-term dislocation this process would entail, not least for the providers of social services, many of whom are themselves politically engaged middle-earners, like public school teachers and health professionals. 


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