Baby bribes

If people don't want children, a government grant is unlikely to change their mind.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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What would it cost to bribe you to have a child? Three thousand Australian dollars? One thousand euros? Paid maternity leave? Flexible working policies? Or none of the above?

The announcement by Peter Costello, Australia’s treasurer and prime ministerial hopeful, that women will be given incentives of $3000 (£1200) for every newborn child, has sparked a debate across the world. Two weeks after he suggested that couples have ‘one for your husband, one for your wife and one for the country’, the rights and wrongs of pro-natalist policies is still a hot topic (1).

There has been noisy denunciation, from those arguing that the scheme is a step back for women, a financial no-brainer (a grand to raise a child? are you kidding?), and in any case doomed to failure among everybody except schoolgirls, to whom pregnancy may come to seem a sure-fire way of quadrupling their annual pocket money. At the same time, there is a quiet sense of relief that the problem of the plummeting fertility rate in the West has finally been recognised, and governments are prepared to do something about it.

But while it is a safe bet that pro-natalist policies such as Costello’s – and the similar cash incentive scheme recently introduced by Italy’s Berlusconi government – will not work, this is not for the reasons that their critics suggest. If women aren’t having children, it cannot be reduced to a question of expense, nor to the argument that they have better things to do with their time. It’s because of the peculiarly negative culture that surrounds parenthood today, which is far stronger than any number of state-sponsored pro-natalist incentives.

There is certainly something striking about the speed with which the fertility rate is dropping in most of the developed world. According to UN figures, between 1970-5 and 2000-05, the total fertility rate (TFR) – defined as the number of children that would be born to each woman if she were to live to the end of her child-bearing years and bear children at each age in accordance with prevailing age-specific fertility rates – for the UK has fallen from 2.0 to 1.6. In other European countries the decline is even more marked. Over the same time period, Iceland’s TFR has fallen from 2.8 to 2.0; Spain’s from 2.9 to 1.2, and Italy’s from 2.3 to 1.2. Australia’s total fertility rate has fallen from 2.5 to 1.7 (2).

The exception to the rule is the USA, where the fertility rate has risen slightly, from 2.0 to 2.1. Only Finland and Equatorial Guinea seem to share this experience. Much has been made of the UK’s recent rise in the number of births – 621,469 in 2003, an increase of 4.3 percent on 2002. But this can hardly be heralded as a turnaround – it has come after 10 years of steady decline from 1990 levels (3).

What is the problem here? It is not a demographic one. Much is made of the fact that the fertility rate in much of the world has fallen under ‘replacement levels’ (the level of fertility at which a couple has only enough children to replace themselves) of 2.1. But that does not mean that the human race is about to die out – the world’s population currently stands at six billion, and worldwide the fertility rate is 2.7. The fact that concern focuses on the ‘high income’ countries, where the TFR is 1.7, is partly spurred by the old racial fear of the ‘wrong kind’ of people reproducing in the ‘wrong kind’ of countries. Yet throughout the whole world, the fertility rate has almost halved in the past 30 years – making the always-overblown panics about an overpopulated Africa/India/China taking over a dying Europe seem even more preposterous today (4).

The most powerful demographic concern to come to the fore in recent years has focused upon ageing. The combination of rising life expectancy and falling fertility in the developed world has led politicians and analysts to worry incessantly about the affordability of pensions, healthcare and other geriatric paraphernalia. But as Phil Mullan argues, the relationship of ageing to economic growth means that this process is easily affordable, provided society shows the flexibility and fore-sightedness to organise around it – and is prepared to take advantage of the contribution that can be made by older people who are healthier and more active than previous generations (5). The fact that, instead, the developed world is tending to panic in the face of ageing shows the fearful, narrow character of the demographic debate.

When it comes to the question of why the falling fertility rate is a problem, none of the demographic arguments stand up. By the same token, the recent attempts at demographic solutions do not look even plausible. Peter Costello, for example, admits that a government bribe of $3000 is not going to encourage people to have children (although if the Australian government really does believe that, one wonders if its motive for introducing the payment really can be as innocuous as Costello has argued: ‘[Parents] are struggling with a lot of costs and if the government can help them, then they should’) (6). Nor is it likely that state payments of any sort will encourage families to have more children – ‘one for the country’, and all that.

Historically, it has always been the social classes with the lowest incomes that have had more children. Kids are not a financial decision, calculated in bald terms of cost or benefit, and people’s reproductive behaviour is no more susceptible to crude manipulation by the market than it is determined by the supply of condoms or population control policies. Broader, more complex social trends inform the fertility rate – and in the developed world today, these trends are far from positive.

As history has shown, a fall in the fertility rate per se is not a negative thing. It is related to industrialisation, to the level of economic and social development, which is related to improvements in infant mortality levels, increases in life expectancy, and greater affluence across society. The fact that, in the West today, people can choose their ideal family size, (relatively) safe in the knowledge that their children will not die before them and they will not have to rely on their children to boost the household income is a clear mark of progress. Even if that did mean that the fertility rate fell way below replacement levels, with some couples having only one child and others none at all, this would not necessarily be a bad thing.

But there is a negative undercurrent to reproductive trends in the developed world, which is reflected in the angst-ridden discussion about the fertility rate and the policy solutions it provokes. From worries about the affordability of children alongside the potential expense incurred by ageing parents, the burden of parenthood versus the advantages of a life with no ties, the fears of the unpredictable impact a child can have on one’s career/sexual relationship/self-identity, the fear of responsibility faced by ‘kidults’ in their thirties who barely feel old enough to be responsible for themselves, the general anxiety about whether this is the kind of world in which one wants to raise a child anyway – these are the kind of considerations that dominate an ever-more fraught discussion about what children, ultimately, are for.

This indicates that people are not choosing childlessness for positive reasons, so much as drifting into it out of anxiety about the future, and about the consequences of parenthood. Set against all these worries, the perks of a few quid in government money and the admonition that you need kids to support you in your old age is not exactly convincing.

More to the point, state pro-natalist policies that emphasise the need for incentives to help with the vast expense of having kids (‘You have a baby you have to buy the nappies and the bottle and the bouncinette and the capsule for the back of the car and the cot and you have got to have a room to put the baby in, you need the formulas and all those things’, explains Costello helpfully), while providing only a few quid in practice, seem most likely to fuel the negativity surrounding childrearing (7). The official focus on the ageing question, with the implicit notion that people have a responsibility to reproduce a new generation of elder-carers, contributes to the instrumental view of parenthood.

The most miserablist aspect of the pro-natalism debate, however, is the way it has turned what were once progressive policy discussions about people’s ability to participate in society as a whole into a narrow, backward demographic obsession. Tax breaks and state benefits, which were once justified primarily by the need to help lower-income parents pay for the basics for their children, are now seen simply as bribes.

Paid maternity leave – once seen as key to allowing women’s full participation in the world of work – now tends to be discussed in terms of a financial incentive to encourage them to breed. Flexible working policies, which at one time would be a welcome feature of modern society, allowing employees more autonomy in the organisation of their working day, are in today’s context promoted as halfhearted measures to allow mothers to skive off both work and full-time mothering – as if in recognition that nobody in their right mind can be expected to give a wholehearted commitment to work or to parenthood. And on it goes.

Peter Costello can try and exhort people all he likes to have ‘one for your husband, one for your wife and one for the country’. But how is this going to work, when people are struggling to work out whether they even want one for themselves. If governments want to encourage parents, they should keep their noses (and their calculators) out of people’s reproductive decisions.

(1) Lie back and think of the bank balance, Guardian, 24 May 2004

(2) Human Development Indicators 2003

(3) Live Births: Largest annual rise since 1979, Office for National Statistics

(4) Human Development Indicators 2003

(5) Ageing: the future is affordable, by Phil Mullan

(6) Transcript: Interview with Peter Costello by ABC Learning Centre, Albany Creek, 21 May 2004

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Topics Politics


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