a bird and a bottle

It’s the Economics, Stupid.
March 5, 2007, 8:26 am
Filed under: feminism/s & gender, news, politics, reproductive justice, sexuality

Around the first world — and particularly in Western Europe — populations are stagnant. People are not having children at a fast enough rate to grow the population, or, in some cases, to keep it steady at today’s levels. Even in the fertile U.S. of A., where the population always seems to be growing (though actually is closer to replacement level), it’s not American women who are having the babies. Instead, large immigrant families are staving off a population crisis.

Why is it that couples and women are having fewer children? And what can/should be done about it? The NY Times magazine yesterday explored this question in an article called The Motherhood Experiment.

According to the article, researchers posit that a large part of the reason that birthrates are dropping is that women are evaluating the burdens faced by mothers in the workforce and deciding that it’s not for them. Countries with stagnant or dropping populations, then, are betting that they can increase fertility rates by making it easier for women to work and have kids. What a novel idea.

Here are some examples: The EU requires that employers provide pay parity and full benefits to part-time workers; in other regions (mainly Scandinavia), state-funded childcare is provided for all those who need it.

And — shocker! — it seems to be working. The Times reports that in Norwegian cities where there are more day care slots than children, women have more children and have them younger. Yet the U.S. still does not guarantee any paid parental leave and provides little publicly financed or free childcare. Childcare is expensive and its expense discourages women from both having children and from working. A lose-lose situation.

Certainly, as the article acknowledges, 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.


5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

great post. thanks.

Germany – among many European countries – has introduced “parental leave” (Elternzeit) rather than maternity leave. Either parent – mother or father – is able to take time off from work (paid and then unpaid but protected) in order to take care of the child. The gender neutrality of the law strikes me as an essential component to establishing a better model for parenting and for removing the exclusive onus from the mother.

Comment by professorplum

i believe you and lerner are dealing with two fundamentally different issues here, the interaction of which is a wee bit dangerous. while i CERTAINLY agree that the working world must drastically reform itself in order to avoid implicitly discriminating against both pregnant women and those desiring to be pregnant, i can think of no better news than that of dropping birthrates. the women that wish to have children should absolutely be afforded every bureaucratic means of doing so, but for such a legitimate case to be argued on behalf of under-population seems misguided… or am i simply failing to understand why 50 million less americans would be a “crisis?” it’s great that norwegian women can have kids without jeopardizing their careers and financial statuses, but the happiness of those particular individuals seems to be the intended goal, not the satisfaction of some global agenda… i mean, lerner’s needless first paragraph is absurdly lazy journalism that distracts from her otherwise essential article. no?

Comment by d

d – i think the socio-economic issue at play here is that if a population as a whole gets too old, it becomes economically untenable: too many people getting social security/ medicaid, not enough people paying taxes. plus, a country can run the risk of having too few workers. 50 million fewer working americans would probably drive the country into bankruptcy. these are both major concerns in europe, where the reproduction (and immigration) rates are lower than in america. but as bean notes, we’re barely at replacement levels.
i have never studied anything resembling macro economics, so this could be b.s. but i think the basic contours are right. hope this helps.

Comment by professorplum

[…] 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 […]

Pingback by Fertility « Abstract Nonsense

[…] 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 […]

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