Countries throughout the Western (and East Asian) world are starting to wonder how to raise flagging fertility rates. Remember that the total fertility rate that is generally accepted to be needed for a population to naturally replace itself is 2.1 children per woman. In Europe most countries fall far below that number: indeed the average figure for European countries is 1.59. As the BBC reports, European lawmakers are concerned about these figures. According to the UN, two-thirds of countries in Europe have introduced policies designed to increase fertility rates, from cash incentives to paid parental leave. But how effective are these policies?
Russia’s response to low fertility rates seems to rely heavily on cash incentives to parents. Russia’s fertility rate fell to a desperately low 1.16 children per woman back at the end of the twentieth century. Over the last twenty years it has risen back to 1.48. President Putin wants it to rise even higher to 1.7. In order to reach this goal the Russian government introduced a “maternity capital” payment for families with two or more children in 2007 (this payment is currently worth USD7,600). Last year the government also promised tax breaks for bigger families. Further incentives for larger families have also been announced: first-time mothers will be eligible to receive maternity benefits currently available only for women with two or more children. Welfare benefits will also be paid for children aged three to seven in low-income families and free school meals will be provided for the first four years of school. All of these measures have so far managed to temporarily increase the number of families with two children, but one demography expert, Professor Evgeny Yakovlev, noted that wider financial uncertainty has outweighed the allurement of these policies and has led to another fall in the birth rate.
Italy has taken a similar route to Russia by offering cash payments. It introduced a payment scheme of €800 per couple per birth in 2015. However, this policy seems it have had little effect, Italy still has one of the lowest fertility rates in the EU at 1.3 children per woman. While cash payments might have some short term impact, they will have minimal success in the longer term if there are countervailing societal or economic reasons for women to delay or forgo having children. In Italy demographers point to large levels of emigration and societal attitudes towards house work, motherhood and the family.
France is usually pointed to as one of the countries that has had the most success in propping up its fertility rate; at around 1.9 births per woman, France is the leading success story of a rich Western nation keeping the forces of natural fertility decline (somewhat) at bay. However, this success story has lost some of its luster in recent years as France too has seen its fertility rate decline. One reason for its relative success is that France has a range of social policies which are coordinated into a coherent whole by the Ministry of Families. This means that measures to help families are not undercut by other policies (like tax rates). In France, child care is subsidized for younger children and larger families have monthly benefits (around €130 per month) as well as means-tested grants given at the birth of each child.
Sweden is similar to France – it too has had comparatively robust fertility rate of around 1.9, and it too has seen this rate modestly decline in the last few years. Here, the monthly allowance for parents is around USD167 and this increases when the child hits 11 and then 15 years of age. Maternal employment rates are among the highest in the EU, while Swedish parents are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave to share between them. Childcare is also subsidized and working hours are lower in Sweden than in many other countries.
Personally, I think the wider social pressures and constraints are much more important for a decision to have a child than a monetary payment or grant. The ability to have family support with young children, to be able to help around the house because one is not working all day and to have good childcare available at a reasonable price when the children are older is so important. Some of these things the government can help with. However, I am skeptical that some brilliant mix of governmental policies by itself will greatly raise fertility rates. The reasons for people having fewer children run deeper than that.
Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet’s blog on population issues.