Busting the baby bust

In a Slate Explainer, Michelle Tsai asks what can governments do to make fertility rates go up? and answers:

Throw cash at new parents, and make it easy for them to balance their careers and families. Government benefits—in the form of tax credits, for example, or state-run day care—can make raising children more manageable. Last year, Vladimir Putin proposed a number of benefits designed to encourage large families, like long maternity leaves and $8,900 cash subsidies for stay-at-home mothers who have a second child. Some governments go one step further, doling out dating advice along with financial incentives for babies.

In France and the Scandinavian countries, which have some of the highest fertility rates in Europe, parents get lots of government help. A French maman has at least 16 weeks of mandatory, paid maternity leave, as well as guaranteed job security and—if she has a third child—a monthly stipend of up to 1,000 euros for a year. In Norway, women are entitled to 10 months at their full salary or a year at 80 percent. Because these policies have been in place for decades, the countries' fertility rates are approaching 2.1, roughly the point where a population can sustain itself without immigration. Other nations are emulating this approach: Spain now offers a 2,500 euro bonus for every baby born. South Korea, which has one of the world's lowest fertility rates, shells out $3,000 per couple for in-vitro fertilization. And in Germany, where women have an average of 1.3 babies, Angela Merkel proposed up to 1,800 euros a month for stay-at-home parents, and more day-care centers to improve the public image of working moms—who have long been dubbed Rabenmütter, or "raven mothers." (Countries plan these financial incentives carefully to avoid drawing in too many poor parents—and creating a bigger lower class.)

But these are not very good examples. Almost all European countries have a lot of amenities for new mothers; some of those countries have high birth rates, and some of them low. America, which has many fewer amenities, has higher birth rates than Canada, which has a lot more government support for child-rearing. There's no very good evidence that a government can do much of anything to increase its birth rate. The main culprit seems to be opportunity cost: women have more fun things to do, these days, than spend time with toddlers. And even parenting with lots of free day care involves spending a lot of time with toddlers.

One interesting suggestion from a friend who is a recent new suburban parent is that America's car culture may be giving childbearing a big boost. Dragging a child around a city, even a family-friendly Canadian or northern European city, is a major hassle, especially since after you get home, all worn out and cranky from the expedition, chances are your urban apartment forces you to be in closer proximity to your child than is ideal for maintaining an even temper.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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