Tax singles and offer wedding lotteries

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(THE CONVERSATION) There is growing awareness – and concern – about falling birth rates in the United States and other countries around the world.

Falling birth rates are generally seen as a sign of declining society, the diminishing power of a nation, and the eclipse of marriage and family values. They are rarely placed in any historical context. But birth rates are cyclical and have gone up and down throughout history.

While some people may assume that the decision to have a child is personal or private, individuals and couples also respond to external forces. Economic, social and cultural factors strongly influence birth rates. As a historian who has studied the rise of singles in the 17th and 18th centuries, I know how governments and societies have traditionally responded to low marriage and birth rates with various persuasive techniques.

In the 1690s, England and France entered a 120-year period of continuous hot and cold warfare. The two nations were also superpowers who engaged in trade, established colonies, and waged wars on multiple continents.

Maintaining a healthy population was a major concern, seen as a crucial element in ensuring economic and military might. Thus, each country has put forward a number of natalist strategies to encourage marriage and births.


Marriage loses its luster

In the 17th century – a period when marriage and fertility were more closely linked than they are today – the English were primarily concerned about low marriage rates.

Demographic historians EA Wrigley and RS Schofield reconstructed the demographic trends of England from 1541 to 1871 to show how, thanks to a relatively late age at first marriage and high rates of people who never married, birth rates in England have fallen. From 1600 to 1750, the average English woman married at 26 and the average man at 28. This age at first marriage did not begin to decline until after 1750 with the advent of the industrial revolution.

Perhaps more importantly, between 13 and 27% of the English born between 1575 and 1700 never married. This rate was highest in the last decades of the 17th century.

Various factors explain the high percentage of people who never marry: war, colonization and epidemics, such as the plague. The literature of the Restoration of England also reveals a negative attitude towards marriage among elite men.

So when the English government passed the Marriage Duty Act in 1695 to raise money to fight the French, it simultaneously addressed income needs and fertility issues.

The Marriage Fee Tax levied duties on births, marriages and deaths. But it also prompted people to marry by taxing single people over 25 and widowers without children. Women were generally not taxed because the government assumed that men were largely responsible for the decline in marriage.

Push singles towards motherhood

Cultural pressure has also served to persuade or encourage women to marry.

The first literary and visual depictions of the “old maid” archetype, an ever disparaging portrayal of never-married women appeared alongside the tax on marriage rights.

A classic example is William Hogarth’s “Morning” print from his “Four Times of the Day” series. It features a censored, partnerless, unattractive woman who is considered past her prime.

Literary satirists have also suggested marriage lotteries to partner with unwanted singles. A 1710 proposal for “The Love Lottery: Or, a Woman the Prize” responded directly to the tax on marriage rights. The author proclaimed that instead of taxing weddings “they should have offered to help them make matches”. He suggested a lottery in which “maids and widows” could venture at 10 shillings and the prize would be a husband or a dowry.

This proposal was one of many that arose between the 1690s and 1730s. For example, in 1734, “A Bill for a Charitable Lottery for the Relief of the Distressed Virgins in Great Britain” stated that “for the necessary encouragement of the spread, to which we must pay particular attention to the prospect of impending war, that all virgins in Britain between the ages of 15 and 40 should be wiped out [gotten rid of] by lottery.

Although presented as forward-looking legislation, the bill only appeared in print.

Saving babies for France

France differs from England by focusing more directly on increasing births. Although French writers considered various reasons for what they saw as low birth rates, high infant mortality was seen as a major problem.

In the 1750s, the Parisian midwife, Madame du Coudray, capitalized on the pronatal position of the French government and offered her services to Louis XV to train the country’s midwives to improve the rate of live births in France.

Du Coudray, herself single and biologically childless, reproduced something else for France: what she called her machine – and what one might call a dummy – on which midwives could practice different techniques used during difficult or dangerous deliveries. Historian Nina Gelbart estimates that du Coudray and his followers have trained tens of thousands of midwives in successful birthing techniques.

Natalism today

Replace the 21st century United States and China with 18th century England and France and you will see the same kind of debate about birth rates in these two countries today.

In both countries, a resurgence of policies aimed at getting people to have more babies has already started. China ended its one-child policy in 2016. After a disappointing drop in birth rates, it recently started encouraging families with three children.

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The United States is unlikely to see the equivalent of a national midwife like du Coudray – or, to use today’s parlance, a “reproductive czar.” But the US Congress is finally talking in earnest about increasing funding for child care. And from July 2021, the IRS began issuing monthly child tax credit checks to most parents in the United States.

Today’s policies are more of a carrot than a sticky approach pursued by England with its tax on marriage rights; instead of taxing singles to encourage marriage, the United States gives credit to existing parents.

We’re less likely to see single women blatantly ridiculed as contemporary singles for choosing not to have children – although, as I wrote, Americans still tend to stigmatize women who choose to have children. remain single and childless.

But if the past is any guide, the superpowers of the 21st century will continue to engage in natalist strategies, as marriage, family, and reproduction are still seen as the cornerstones of societal and political power.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/taxing-bachelors-and-proposing-marriage-lotteries-how-superpowers-addressed-declining-birthrates-in-the-past-164214.


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