Sunday, June 29, 2008

Low birth rates in the EU? It's not what you think

An article in the magazine section of today's NYT questions the conventional wisdom of why the birth rate in some parts of Europe are so low that even in the wealthier parts of the EU populations are expected to decline over the next few years, in some cases substantially.

It turns out that the EU states more to the north with more generous social programs -- the UK, Germany, Sweden for instance -- have higher birth rates, although even Germany is seeing their population shrink by about 100,000 per year. Those states in the southern and eastern parts of the trade bloc have low birth rates and are seeing their populations literally collapse. (Bulgaria, for instance, will see a decline of 3 million people by 2050 unless something happens soon.)

Social conservatives go back to the old red herring of women in the workplace to blame for the decline. But the facts show that where women get the full support of the state, including anywhere from 26 to 54 weeks of maternity leave, women will work and they will have more children. In other words, it pays to have more than two children if you're in Britain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark. Have them in Spain, Italy and Greece and you're setting yourself up for financial whiplash because of the lack of support from the state.

Another issue is where women are expected to do more of the housework, the fertility rate is lower. That should be no surprise -- where men agree to have a greater role in the household chores, they get rewarded, so to speak.

You'd think paying parents a huge bonus to have kids would do the trick. That's the tack that Laviano, Italy, has tried to take -- with the town half deserted, the mayor has offered a €10,000 bonus to have a child and raise him or her in town. It's available to citizens and immigrants, married and single mothers. Has that done the trick? Well, yes and no because the parents in the town were planning to have children anyway; and even though Italy has the second best health care system in the world (behind France) their social net is rather more frayed than in northern climes.

The article goes on to suggest the American laissez-faire model where state supports are next to nothing fits in quite nicely with a "religious" society and may explain higher birth rates than in the EU. This may have been true in an age when mothers could afford to take some time off to start a family because their husbands or partners had a well paying job. But in a time where it now takes two incomes just to makes meet it simply isn't true anymore and one could see a big drop in birth rates in the States the next few years because people can't afford to have kids anymore.

Of course, we need to consider population growth in terms of sustainable development to avoid a population explosion. But parents shouldn't be forced to not have kids because they can't afford another mouth to feed either.

The lessons for Canada? A European cradle to grave model may be far-fetched, but having extended maternity leave benefits is only the first step. We need to expand significantly the Child Tax Credit and the GST Credit, and make it geared to income. It makes no sense to pay everyone $1200 per year when the top two or three percent don't even need the money and it could be dispersed to people at the low end, increasing their benefits by say $500 to $600 per child per year -- for many that would make a huge difference.

A day care program is also vital. Provinces should choose whether this is universal or geared to income as well, but again parents should not have to choose between work and home to make ends meet.

And third, but certainly not least, we should be encouraging parents to have children -- in an environment where it is safe for them to do so and both boys and girls are brought up to have self-esteem and worth and not being told "their place in life."

Sadly, we have a government right now in Canada that believes the American way -- with the exception of health care -- is the only way to solve all our problems. We don't want to be an annex of the US that just happens to have free hospitals. We believe that collective responsibility is as important as individual ruggedness; and that we can't have life, liberty and personal security unless we first have peace, order and good government.

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Red Tory said...

Excellent post! However, I’m not sure if I buy the connection between a “religious” state and higher birthrates. If, as the figures seem to indicate, that birth rates in the northern European countries are higher than we may have thought due to the quality of their social services, it also has to be said that these are some of the most non-religious countries in the world. So that seems to be a bit of a contradiction, no?

BlastFurnace said...

I'm not sure if I buy the connection either, RT. There does seem to be a disconnect when it comes to the States as opposed to other countries, as though the US presents a sui generis example.

And frankly, the idea of a large family or even one child ensuring family "stability" is bunk -- one would think divorce rates are steady across the board whether one actively practises a faith or not. But it is worth pointing out that in states with a better level of social programs such as WIC, both mothers and children have healthier outcomes than in states where such supports are razor thin.

I'm not sure how this reflects region by region for fertility rates, though.

Anonymous said...

Of course the connection strong religion - high birth rate is correct. But first let us get down to basics.
The higher level of education the lower birth rate. In Europe the fertility rate is 1,3 children per woman. In the US it just dropped below 2.1 children per woman. 2.1 is minimum survival level.
Euroep is dying out, like an old dinosaur. Europe needs to "steal" 0.8 children per woman each year. According to the Berliner Institute Europe needs to "steal" 50. million persons the next 20 years. At the same time the wolrd fertility rate is dropping to 2.6 or according to some sources 2.3 children per woman. Skilled labour will be more precious than gold.
Anna Sanday

Anonymous said...

Politicians in Europe do not want to discuss this question. The answer is given. About 50 to 60 % of the households consist of one person. To live with another person you need to compromise. To raise children you need to sacrifice. The lazy, spoiled ego-focused European population does not want to take responsibility. The stupid, stubborn, short -sighted coward European press does not want to risk single copy sales. How to tell a childish ego -tripped bunch of lazy middle-aged "youngsters" that they have to take responsibility, and raise kids. No way. That Editor-in-chief will be fired wihtin a fortnight. Still all the major Editor-in-chiefs bear the full responsibility together with politicians for the European down fall. All politicians and Editor-in-chiefs since 1972 in Europe has to take the personal responsibility for the slope in the economy and the outrageous high costs for health care and the extra work all the consumers have to do because it is to expensive to have live personal answering the phones at authorities and companies.
But hey, this is not what it used to be.? Yes, we used to have a dominant religion. The religion is the natural regulator of the Fertility Rate. Do the priests know this.? Nope. Does the people know about this. No it is to complicated. To much personal responsibility, to look 25 or 50 years ahead. Only religion can do this. In Europe we have a high level of education and the level of religious people in the indogenous population is declining. About 3 to 4% of the population are still religious. The other are too smart. They prefer to dye out. We thing we are so smart. But we are not. Mankind has not come to the level where they have enough knowledge of knowledge to survive.
This will continue until we robotize the human brain and it will be easy enough to have no brains or individuals popping up.
Anna Sanday said...

Red, I absolutely agree with the connection. Of course, we're all affected by our political and social perceptions. There's definitely a correlation between religion and birth rates. If you don't believe me, check out the mormons.