How Better Work/Family Policies Can Solve Everyone’s Birthrate Problems


depresseed-motherLawmakers in both the United States and our neighbors across the pond have a big concern on their minds: falling birthrates. The American birth rate hit a record low in November. Meanwhile, the total number of live births in the European Union has fallen by 3.5 percent since 2008. About 5.4 million children were born in the area in 2011, while 7.5 million were born in 1960.

But one solution is staring those lawmakers in the face on both sides of the Atlantic: better work/family policies that allow working women to also have children. The New York Times focused on the case of Germany in an article on Wednesday, which is projected to see is population shrink by 19 percent by 2060. Authors Suzanne Daley and Nicholas Kulish write that a big part of the solution will be in “remaking values, customs and attitudes” in a country “where working women with children are still tagged with the label ‘raven mothers,’ implying neglectfulness.” And its policies similarly fail to encourage mothers to stay in the workforce. It offers subsidies for children, stay-at-home mothers, and married couples, but doesn’t invest as much in childcare and after-school programs. The country recently guaranteed day care for all children more than a year old but critics say there is still a shortage of affordable facilities and many schools let out at noon with few programs for the afternoon.

The United States does an even worse job of providing childcare. Subsidies to pay for care, which costs more than median rent for an infant and four-year-old, are few and have been decreasing. American children also tend to start preschool after their developed peers and far fewer three- and four-year-olds are enrolled here. By contrast, 13 European Union countries provide nearly universal preschool for children ages three to five.

While countries like Germany, Latvia, and Bulgaria are looking at huge drops in their populations, other European countries are experiencing much higher fertility rates. The Times reports that “[t]here is a band of fertility in Europe, stretching from France to Britain and the Scandinavian countries, helped along by immigrants and social services that support working women.” Take the case of France. The government provides government-run day care starting at three months that’s open for the whole workday and requires at least half of the workers to have a specialized diploma, which is offered on a sliding scale based on income. It also offers tax breaks for parents who hire a licensed nanny. At age three, French children are guaranteed a place in the universal preschool program that often offers daycare until the end of the workday. Ninety-five percent of eligible children attend.

These are the policies that help raise rates. “If you look closely at the numbers, what you see is the higher the gender equality, the higher the birthrate,” Reiner Klingholz of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development told the Times.

The U.S. has a lot of catch up work to do. It is surpassed by 21 other developed countries when it comes to guaranteeing paid maternity leave, protecting the right to ask for a switch to a part-time schedule, and in the share of GDP spent on childcare. Other countries spend an average of .47 percent of GDP, while we spend just .11. Meanwhile, we don’t guarantee workers any paid family leave, nor do we guarantee the right to ask for a flexible schedule, although the idea may be starting to percolate.