An Expanding Society

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Americans think there is a social, political corollary to the physical law of a constantly expanding universe. They are convinced that things should improve, that their futures should open up, not contract.

The notion of Western expansion has turned back on itself a bit, with Washington State about to claim parity with Massachusetts in congressional-delegation size as well as claiming bragging rights for information and technology leadership.

The expansion is intellectual: For example, economists this week are honoring colleagues who have made Nobel-quality contributions for findings like how business leaders' economic expectations can lead them to decisions that drive up labor costs and create unemployment.

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The expansion is legal: In the current Brookings Review, George Akerlof and Janet Yellen explain how the liberalization of state abortion laws in the late 1960s and early 1970s (anticipating Roe v. Wade in January 1973) occurred at the same time that unmarried people gained greater legal access to contraceptives. "We have found that this sudden increase in the availability of both abortion and contraception - we call it a reproductive technology shock - is deeply implicated in the increase in out-of-wedlock births," they write. Liberalized abortion and contraception were expected to result in fewer out-of-wedlock births. But the opposite happened, because the public began to drop the practice of forced or "shotgun" marriage as a response to pregnancy. If the shotgun marriage rate had remained steady from 1965 to 1990, white out-of-wedlock births would have risen only 25 percent as much as they have. Black out-of-wedlock births would have increased only 40 percent, they say.

Before the 1970s, unmarried women kept fewer of their babies, putting them up for adoption. As women's financial opportunities increased and the out-of-wedlock stigma decreased, women could build their own single-parent households. This issue has not played out politically. The authors suggest that fathers not only pay directly to support out-of-wedlock children but also be taxed for fathering them.

The expansion reflects a compounding of population growth, population shift, and greater ethnic diversity. Reflecting change, states like Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Montana stand to gain congressional seats after the 2000 census. New York will lose about 200,000 whites between 1995 and then, but will gain about 400,000 minority residents, rather evenly divided among blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. More-even distribution implies more-even opportunity.

As the postwar baby-boomer bulge works through the population cycle, the United States is moving toward a more uniform generational profile. Age groups, by decade from the first years up to the '90s, are becoming more equal in size. Gains in health-care distribution, less-oppressive work conditions, wider investment and continuing-education opportunities, age-discrimination laws, and communications advances that keep seniors connected to events even out opportunity throughout the life cycle. Soon every community in America will be a retirement community.

America is stuck in some regards: Poverty rates have stayed the same over the past 25 years, with more single-parent families headed by women. In education, politicians rail against teacher unions for perceived slow progress and ignore the social context.

But with big negatives like war out of the way for the moment, Americans are intuitively approaching next month's elections looking for those candidates with the more progressive inclinations.

*Richard J. Cattani is editor at large of the Monitor.

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