This is Not Your Father’s Green Bay

I drove by another closed daycare last week. The older I get the easier it is see changes in demography. There is more chatter about demographic trends but I am pretty sure we don’t really grasp what the profound changes of the last decades have baked into our future.  There are some uncomfortable matters that barely even make the kitchen table conversations. I have no intention of constructing a comprehensive analysis of population trends, but of sharing some things that strike a community banker as very meaningful for our collective future. Some may find my points disturbing. The most painful point to face is that United States Federal policy is now that having fewer children is a new way to fund entitlement spending.

While daycare closings hold mixed meanings for me, what really got my attention was a press release from the US Department of Health and Human Services issued in late January. The Administration has been engaged in an unpleasant dust-up with Catholics over the administration’s rather startling mandate that essentially all health plan sponsors must provide free contraception and sterilizations to employees. Cancer, asthma and heart medicine may have co-pays; contraceptive pills and surgical sterilizations may not. This move proved to be very popular with that part of the electorate more concerned with getting free things than with the first amendment. With the election over, there was still a need to address a “compromise” promised to Catholics and others concerned about constitutional etiquette. HHS has announced that instead of requiring objecting employers to bear these costs, they will simply mandate that the employers’ claims administrators will pay those costs. To address the obvious point that this is simply laundering Catholic dollars through the health plan administrator, HHS advanced the argument that the costs of contraception will be offset through savings from “improvements to woman’s health and fewer childbirths.”  The significance of this unguarded candor cannot be overstated. Especially when one considers the speed at which the population is already aging.

Americans educated in the 60s and 70s were taught to deeply fear and understand demographic trends. We were literally taught that within decades, a standing room only population would be unable to feed itself. Plunging infant mortality and the collapse of traditional social structures in the third world gave rise to the reality of incredible human suffering in burgeoning slums. When we shift our focus from Mumbai to Manitowoc the demographic picture is radically different, but the population explosion ghosts still haunt our thinking. Wisconsin is not dealing with a population explosion. We are dealing with very dramatic shifts within certain segments of the population. These are occurring in an overall context of flattening growth, aging and impending overall decline. Politicians are arguing over who has the better plan to create the economic growth necessary to fund entitlement spending growth. They talk as if economic growth had nothing to do with population growth. We have to recognize and lay aside the default assumptions we were raised on. The problem is not population growth, but aging.   Babies are not an inconvenient social burden. They are beautiful and hopeful. They need generous love and care from Moms and Dads and they are worth far more than the effort they take. Children are evidence that a culture has hope for the future. If we can’t muster a lot emotion about all that stuff, we should at least realize we need them if we want someone to pay the entitlements we think we have coming.

The late 80s and 90s were a period of great local energy, growth and youthfulness in Green Bay. Well-educated kids from rural farm families were moving to cities like ours in droves. They brought their legendary farm work ethic and pragmatic ingenuity.  Lena’s loss was Green Bay’s gain. The families may not have wanted as many children as Mom and Dad, but they brought their parents work ethic. They married young, had children and both spouses tended to work outside the home. Rural in-migration, women entering the paid workforce and rising divorce rates fueled an explosion in daycare centers and they all seemed full.  Today on my drive home I will pass two of these empty facilities with For Sale signs hanging where children recently laughed and played. My guess is they will become spas or financial planners’ offices when the price gets low enough. In-migration from the small towns and farms is played out, fertility rates have plunged. Young people are delaying marriage and having fewer children later in life. Divorce rates keep rising. I wonder how people can drive by without more thought to what these changes mean. Perhaps they think much and say little.

In January I visited a manufacturing plant I have toured regularly for 25 years. The place was bright, busy, cheerful and efficient. Everyone smiled and greeted my friend by name. We responded in our best gringo Spanish. I have seen this plant through its happy white farm kid phase, a brief Hmong phase and seen a healthy ethnic mix over the years. There was no ethnic diversity this time.  I asked my friend if there are no workers of European descent left. He just said “Bob, I don’t think they could cut it”. 

School demography is more revealing. The minority enrollment in Green Bay Public Schools is about 45% and only 57% of Hispanics graduate. The graduation rate for African Americans is 41%. Despite growth in minority enrollment, overall enrollment is declining and certain to decline further. Our schools face tremendous challenges dealing with these trends, especially because our community seems loath to face squarely what is happening. School Administrators don’t help us deal with this by consistently assuring us that our schools are very high quality while drawing attention to the scale of problems largely at funding times. The truth is that we face frightening problems that schools and police may mitigate but can’t solve.

Local hospital administrators inform me that about 50% of child births occur to single mothers. The percentage of mothers married at birth who will later divorce is an additional number. Approximately 40% of childbirths in our area are paid by Medicaid. The tragic number I wish I could measure is the percentage of children who seldom, if ever, experience the unconditional love of an adult in their lives.

The noisy arguments in Washington over debt, deficits, taxes and entitlement expenditures strangely reflect a firm consensus among the aging baby boomers in power that we will have our entitlements and that someone else is going to pay for them.

The boomer approach to immigration is the same. One party appears grateful for another aggrieved minority to patronize and the other simply wanted the profits generated by undocumented workers. Illegal immigrants are effectively welcome to stay as non-persons until the next amnesty. Meanwhile they clean our bathrooms knowing their families could be busted up through deportation at any time. I haven’t written to present a conclusion and I obviously haven’t written to avoid offense. I have written to highlight that in demographic terms things are changing at lightning speed. Meanwhile we are using yesterday’s language to talk about yesterday’s problems. Today’s problems are unaddressed and tomorrow’s are looming in sight. Tomorrow is not going to unfold the way we imagine.

I am not sure if it was Dr. Spock or Mr. Spock who convinced us we get to invent our own reality, but this movie is not going to end the way we want. Boomers hold all the levers of power to today, but this will surely change with time.