Bean writes about a non-coercive strategy of increasing fertility rates. It appears as if what causes fertility rates to plummet with development is women’s entry into the workforce combined with the realization that working mothers face significant difficulties. Therefore, it’s possible to increase fertility by subsidizing child care, as France and Sweden do.

Although Bean doesn’t mention it, such policies have been mostly successful: France’s fertility rate is now 2.01 up from 1.89 in 2000, higher than every developed country except the US, and higher than even the US once one controls for teen pregnancy. Sweden is at 1.66 up from 1.53 in 2000, the 8th highest in the EU. Meanwhile, Ireland, whose high fertility (1.86, second only to France in the EU) is based on keeping women barefoot and pregnant rather than informed and empowered, is seeing a reduction in fertility.

Significantly, the Norwegian solution of paying women to be mothers is not working so well. In Norway, the government pays women the equivalent of $19,000 a year to stay home and raise children; the fertility rate is 1.78, down from 1.81 in 2000. In Sweden and France, which emphasize daycare, fertility is soaring.

Of course, it’s not all policy. Attitudes matter; the reason Norway is so far high is that it starts from a fairly feminist base (though, to be honest, it doesn’t explain why it’s more fertile than Sweden, widely understood to be the most feminist country in the world). Italy and Spain, which are becoming more Western European and less Catholic in attitude, have seen fertility increases between 2000 and 2006 that are even higher than France’s; but their increased natalism is starting from a base almost at 1.

Bean correctly notes that

there is a long history of using public fertility supports for natalist purposes. But that’s not what’s at issue here. The question here is how to allow women to balance the biological responsibility for childbirth with the need and desire of many women to work outside the home? Some countries, including Sweden, that have been successful in encouraging parenthood through childcare also have much saner work expectations than the U.S. To accomodate motherhod, we *all* need to work less (not just mothers — everyone). Another answer — which the article doesn’t even touch — is to shift societal expectations about childcare. If parents share caregiving responsibilities, men will better understand the demands women have long faced and women will be able to continue to work and to become mothers simultaneously.

The bottom line is that any solution cannot just be about women — it’s got to consider how to shift family structures, societal expectations, and state supports.

Obviously, state supports are the easiest to change. Daycare is expensive for the individual family, but because of the middle class compact, it’s not expensive for the taxpayer. And, of course, it provides the important benefit of covering poor families, which are caught in the impossible situation of having to earn two paychecks while keeping the children at home until free primary education kicks in.

On the other hand, state supports can also help influence societal expectations. Best Buy’s offices have adopted a flex-time policy wherein employees are free to choose their hours, as long as they get all their work done. Not only has this policy increased productivity, but also working mothers are able to maintain a good work-family balance without being branded uncommitted at work. The government can use a variety of mechanisms to encourage such policies, if only because they increase labor productivity.

There’s the environmental argument that low fertility is good because it reduces global population pressure. The problem with that argument is that the people who make it manage to accomplish both being racist/imperialist and ignoring realities in order to avoid being racist/imperialist.

First, in the first world there’s no population pressure. The US can comfortably accommodate many more than 300 million people without any increases in agricultural productivity, it exports so much food. Globally it’s something else, but 100 million extra Americans or Europeans don’t make much of a difference.

Second, stare at a graph of agricultural productivity for a few seconds if you think that the very real problem of supporting a social security system with a fertility rate of 1.5 outweighs the hypothetical problem of a population bomb. The way it looks now, world population is going to converge to 11 billion by the end of the century and stay there. That’s sustainable, from both an economic and an environmental point of view.

And third, immigration isn’t always a feasible solution. The US and Canada can weather any fertility rate with immigration alone. Japan, South Korea, and Russia, all countries with very real negative population bombs, can’t; they’re just not attractive destinations for immigrants. Japan is in an especially problematic position, because its social security system is based on cradle-to-grave corporate responsibility to employees, a principle that is being increasingly undermined by a variety of processes of which only some are avoidable.

Fortunately, subsidizing daycare and encouraging corporate cultures conducive to gender equality are good even independently of their making the difference between a fertility rate of 1.5 and a rate of 2. Forget the morality of equal rights for a second; it’s generally better for a society to have a talent pool of skilled workers consisting of all educated adults rather than just half of them. As I like to say, it’s better for everyone for merit to supplant privilege.

4 Responses to Fertility

  1. bean says:

    Alon, Thanks for drawing out some of the studies (and for the link). I think the failure of the Norwegian solution is particularly interesting. I think it exposes the fact that a lot of women do not want to stay home. So paying women simply to stay hoe won’t plug the hole. Instead, governments need to figure out how to make women — and men — feel like they can both parent and work. The example of Sweden is a case in point.

  2. muppt says:

    grow 100 million tube babies.

  3. Axel says:

    Good arguments, but I guess some details are misleading:

    1. The high French total fertility rate is partly explained by the fact that the French census statistics do not use the category of “ethnic French” and that the French-born children of immigrant parents are “French” and not immigrants. According to Laurent Toulemon’s 2004 article “Fertility among immigrant women : new data, a new approach” in “Population and societies”, the estimated rate for French women born in metropolitan France was 1.70 at the end of the 1990’s. Today, it’s probably 1.8 or so.

    Click to access publi_pdf2_pop_and_soc_english_400.pdf

    2. Norway didn’t “fail”. The average total fertility rate of the European Union actually is 1.47. Germany, Italy and Spain all have fertility rates under 1.4. The rates in the new EU members, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and even Roman Catholic Poland, are below 1.3. As in the case of religion, the high US fertility rate is typically classified as an “exception”.

    3. The main problem with democraphic change and a shrinking population is not the absolute number but the proportion of young to old people. As an example (I don’t know of other demographic studies, perhaps someone knows the projections for the US): Actually, Germany with a relatively low fertility rate has a population of 82.4 million. In 2050, the estimated number ranges from 69 million to 74 million. That’s no big deal and comparable to the level at the begin of the 1960’s. But in 2050 there will be twice as many 60-year-olds in than new-born children. Today the population of working age consists of some 50 million persons. In 2050 there will be 22% or 29% less, depending on the extent of immigration. And that’s a great socieal challenge.

  4. Deep Thought says:

    Per Kaufmann and other demographers, the French TFR is no higher than 1.84 and has been falling for 2 years; this includes an immigrants TFR of about 2.15 in the total. Sweden’s TFR went from 1.54 to 1.66 after the subsidies – and has stayed flat. Hardly “soaring”. As for Italy, the TFR gain of 2003 was mainly due to outside analysis of TFRs and you seem to not know that Italian TFR is declining, with some regions holding a TFR of .8 or lower!
    Also, the projection of a future population of 11 billion is predicated on the ‘high’ or ‘constant’ UN projection. Historically, the “medium” projection has been consistently high. A much more likely population projection is a world population maximum of about 8 billion people by the year 2040 with some German demographers predicting a max population of less than 7 billion by the year 2035.

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