Where are the young? Familiar religion ghosts in WPost report on Maine's aging crisis

If you have followed international news about abortion and demographics, you are used to seeing headlines such as the following in the New York Times, focusing on a side effect of China’s infamous one-child policy.

That headline: “Teenage Brides Trafficked to China Reveal Ordeal: ‘Ma, I’ve Been Sold’.”

Selling brides? Here is a crucial piece of background material in this must-read piece. Some government policies, you see, have unintended side effects.

China’s “one child” policy has been praised by its leaders for preventing the country’s population from exploding into a Malthusian nightmare. But over 30 years, China was robbed of millions of girls as families used gender-based abortions and other methods to ensure their only child was a boy.

These boys are now men, called bare branches because a shortage of wives could mean death to their family trees. At the height of the gender imbalance in 2004, 121 boys were born in China for every 100 girls, according to Chinese population figures.

Now, it may seem like a stretch, but when I read that Times piece I thought about a stunningly depressing business story that ran the other day in The Washington Post.

This is a story that is packed with religion ghosts — if you pay attention to the ties between religious faith and birth rates that are at replacement level of higher. The headline: “This will be catastrophic’: Maine families face elder boom, worker shortage in preview of nation’s future.

A preview of America’s future? That appears to be the case. Meanwhile, in Maine, this demographic trend is hitting home in a painful way — in facilities that care for the elderly. Here is a key phrase from this article: “There are simply just not enough people to go around.” Here is a key summary of background material:

Last year, Maine crossed a crucial aging milestone: A fifth of its population is older than 65, which meets the definition of “super-aged,” according to the World Bank.

By 2026, Maine will be joined by more than 15 other states, according to Fitch Ratings, including Vermont and New Hampshire, Maine’s neighbors in the Northeast; Montana; Delaware; West Virginia; Wisconsin; and Pennsylvania. More than a dozen more will meet that criterion by 2030.

Across the country, the number of seniors will grow by more than 40 million, approximately doubling between 2015 and 2050, while the population older than 85 will come close to tripling.

Need more information? Later in the story there is this:

From 2015 to 2050, the number of Americans 85 and older will increase by more than 200 percent, while those ages 75 to 84 will rise by more than 100 percent, according to AARP. By contrast, the number of Americans younger than 65 will increase by about 12 percent.

Now, what do you think would happen if journalists at the Post took this map of the “super-aged” states in America and compared it with, oh, a set of state-by-state Pew Research Center statistics about religious life and, especially, worship attendance?

See any patterns? Are intensely “secular” states more likely to be those with “super-aged” labels?

Yes, of course, economic factors are at play here as well. But that only raises new questions, rather than erasing questions about religious practice and birth rates.

Meanwhile, back in Maine:

With its 65-and-older population expected to grow by 55 percent by 2026, Maine needs more nurses, more home-care workers and more physicians than ever to keep pace with demand for long-term-care services. But the rising demand for care is occurring simultaneously with a dangerously low supply of workers.

About one-third of Maine’s physicians are older than 60. In several rural counties in the state, close to half of the registered nurses are 55 or older and expected to retire or cut back their hours within a decade.

Maine’s largest long-term-care provider, North Country Associates, has been forced to temporarily close admissions in each of its 26 nursing homes because of staffing shortages, sometimes for as long as several months, in an unprecedented change from a few years ago.

It has also permanently shut down two of its nursing homes over the past year, while about a dozen nursing homes across the state have closed their doors over the past several years. Mary Jane Richards, chief operating officer at North Country Associates, said she has already raised wages four or five times in a bid to hire or retain staff.

“There are simply just not enough people to go around,” she said. “We try to elevate our wages, but then the nearest facility brings theirs up.”

Not enough “people”?

The problem is actually more specific than that. It would appear that there hasn’t been enough babies born in Maine and New England and, thus, there aren’t enough children and young people. This affects Maine in many ways, including:

Albert Rose sits on the wharf of his seafood business and fumes that he cannot find help with his daily work of moving and unloading 50 crates of lobster, each often more than 100 pounds. In Harpswell, median age 57, he lives in the oldest town of America’s oldest state.

Rose, 40, has suffered from two torn rotator cuffs and a herniated disk but continues to perform the heavy labor ­himself in part because he has for the past five years been unable to find young workers, absent sporadic help from college students during their summer vacations.

“Ten years ago, every spring you had young people wanting work on the wharf or want to work on a lobster boat,” Rose said. “I haven’t seen a single person this spring or summer looking for boatwork.”

Would it have been relevant to have addressed the birth-rate question in this piece? I would say, “Yes.”

Would it have been relevant to report abortion statistics in this state? Yes, I know many readers would say that this would be a rather “pushy” connection to make. However, that is a factor in birth-rate numbers.

Meanwhile, would it have hurt to have called religious leaders in Maine and across New England — many of whom operate hospice services and elder-care facilities — and ask them for their input on the roots of this demographic death dive in their region? Just asking.

This brings me back to a familiar passage in an old Weekly Standard (RIP) article that I have quoted many times here at GetReligion. The headline on that essay: "America's One-Child Policy."

Once again, this is long. Please read this carefully and think about the trends in Maine:

... In a world where childbearing has no practical benefit, people have babies because they want to, either for self-fulfillment or as a moral imperative. "Moral imperative," of course, is a euphemism for "religious compulsion." There are stark differences in fertility between secular and religious people.

The best indicator of actual fertility is "aspirational fertility" – the number of children men and women say they would like to have. Gallup has been asking Americans about their "ideal family size" since 1936. When they first asked the question, 64 percent of Americans said that three or more children were ideal; 34 percent said that zero, one, or two children were ideal. Today only 34 percent of Americans think that a family with three-or-more children is ideal.

But on this question there are two Americas today: a secular population that wants small families (or no family at all) and a religious population that wants larger families.

Religious affiliation is part of the story, but the real difference comes with church attendance. Among people who seldom or never go to church, 66 percent say that zero, one, or two children is the ideal family size, and only 25 percent view three-or-more children as ideal. Among those who go to church monthly, the three-or-more number edges up to 29 percent. But among those who attend church every week, 41 percent say three or more children is ideal, while only 47 percent think that a smaller family is preferable.

The thesis statement:

When you meet couples with more than three children today, chances are they're making a cultural and theological statement.

One more time, hear that sad truth in Maine: “There are simply just not enough people to go around.”

Think about it.

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