In the U.S., 40% of babies are now born out of wedlock.  In Japan, only 2% are.  Clearly, then, it’s better to be a baby in Japan than America, right?  For all my skepticism about nurture effects, I’m tempted to agree.  I wouldn’t want my kids to grow up without two married parents, even if their childhood memories were the only measurable long-run effect.

Nevertheless, I have no doubt that the lives of kids born out of wedlock are worth living.  It might be nicer to grow up in a traditional family, but can you imagine someone saying, “My parents weren’t married, ‘twould be better never to have been born”?

Now consider: The U.S. has a much higher total fertility rate than Japan.  The U.S. is roughly at replacement: 2.1 kids per woman.   Japan, in contrast, is way down at 1.3.  This means, amazingly, that American and Japanese women give birth to almost exactly the same average number of in-wedlock babies: 1.26 versus 1.27.  The difference: American women then go on to have an additional .84 babies out of wedlock, versus only .03 for Japanese women.

In what sense, then, are kids better off in Japan than the U.S.?  Arithmetically speaking, Japan’s accomplishment isn’t to give more babies a traditional, two-parent home.  Its “accomplishment,” rather, is simply not having babies any other way.  If the U.S. became like Japan, it wouldn’t mean that all the kids now born out of wedlock would have two married parents to raise them.  It would mean, rather, that the kids now born out of wedlock wouldn’t exist at all.

I hope my sons will eventually marry and give me grandchildren.  Still, I would much rather they have children out of wedlock than remain childless.  (And yes, I’d feel the same way if I had daughters).  Why not look at countries the same way?

HT: Robin