Around the globe in industrialized countries, fertility rates have dropped below the population replacement rate of 2.1 children per female causing economic and social concerns for the future. In the U.S. with a fertility rate of 2.09, keeping pace with the “break-even” level is attributed to immigration. The unknown is: How long can we maintain that rate with U.S. family size shrinking? Will money convince women to have more babies?
Jonathan V. Last, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote, “The 2008 election may be about Iraq and George W. Bush and the housing market. But the future of U.S. politics is going to be which party helps people have babies.” It takes more than money to convince women to have babies.
Last week a friend and her husband visited with their two young children. I observed: Yes, the father helps a bit more than my father or husband did, but my friend, even on vacation with no work pressures for either of them, is the “director” and “doer” of most responsibilities relating to caring for the children. She has the number of children needed to replenish the population. Is the reason she stopped at two because of her husband’s participation level? Yes and no. Like so many couples the reasons are complicated and individual.
Dad’s support, be it in America or Asia, isn’t the whole issue but it is a contributing factor, if not stated certainly subliminally. A dozen years ago Makoto Atoh, then director general of the official Institute of Population Problems in Tokyo, told the New York Times, ”I’m very pessimistic about a restoration of fertility. The main reason for the decline in fertility is that women have advanced. They want to get ahead in the world, but they’re also asked to care for children and do all the housework. Men never do that stuff.’
‘Women everywhere are expected to juggle work and family responsibilities and it’s too difficult. Linda Duxbury, business professor at Carleton University in Canada, observes that the decrease in fertility coincides with the rise of the women’s movement. She says, “We haven’t paid attention to work-life balance for 30 years.” She found that Canadian women, particularly the better educated and higher paid, are putting off motherhood, having their children later, and having fewer of them. Lack of flexibility on the job is a root cause.
Paying women to have babies has been tried in countries from Russia to Britian to Japan and Germany with varying success and only modest gains in fertility. When Japanese birth rates hit a low about ten years ago, some town governments instituted programs to encourage women to have more babies. In the town of Kyokushu women were offered $5,000 if they had a fourth child-no one did. In Yamatsuri, a small town outside Tokyo, women were paid $4,600 for the birth of any child plus $460 per year for ten years. Australia provides bonuses for babies at $3,000 each. Russia proposed a subsidy of roughly $9,000 for the birth of a second child. Whatever the money offered, birth rates remain alarmingly low: Canada, 1.5 babies per woman; Australia and Britain, 1.8; Germany. Russia, and Italy, all around 1.3 and Japan hovers at 1.2.
American feminist and author of Taking On the Big Boys: Or Why Feminism Is Good for Families, Business, and the Nation, Ellen Bravo, says, “the countries with the worst work-life policies are the ones that also have falling fertility rates.” To keep pace with replacement levels, the solution to low fertility rates in any country may be more government and corporate support. Duxbury reports that programs which make life easier for parents reflect the greatest upticks in birthrates. The program in France (which has one of the highest fertility rates in Europe along with the Scandinavian countries), indicates that payment for having babies works best when combined with longer parental leave, daycare, and social benefits.