Is Feminism The New Natalism?

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Michelle Goldberg, explaining why liberals should care about demographic decline:

... it's tempting to dismiss concerns about demographic decline as an anti-feminist race panic. The thing is, though, rapidly declining birth rates really are a problem, especially for the sort of generous welfare states that liberals love ... I get why liberals have shied away from this discussion, since there's so many uncomfortable issues involved. But they really shouldn't, because the only solutions to the problem are liberal ones! Basically, the societies where birthrates have plunged to dangerous levels - Russia, Catholic countries like Poland, Spain and Italy, as well as Japan and Singapore - are all places that make it very difficult for women to combine work and family. In countries that support working mothers, like Sweden, Denmark, Norway and France, birthrates are basically fine - they're either just at replacement, or shrinking in a very slow, totally manageable way. (The United States is the exception, for a whole host of reasons - some intuitive and some surprising - that I'll elaborate some other time.) That's why the Tory MP David Willetts, in a very smart 2003 report on the threat low birthrates pose to Europe's pension systems, wrote that "feminism is the new natalism." As he explained:
 
The evidence from Italy, and indeed Spain, is that a traditional family structure now leads to very low birth rates...[a] brief tour of birth rates in four European countries helps demonstrate what modern family policy must be about. It has nothing to do with enforcing traditional roles on women...In most of Europe women still aspire to having two children but in Italy and Germany it is very difficult to combine this with women's other aspirations.
In other words, the threat of population decline is one of the best arguments yet for socialized day care, family leave, and other dreamy Scandinavian-style policies. It's a discussion we should welcome.

Well, maybe. I'll be curious to hear what Goldberg has to say about the United States, because one could argue that the threat of population decline is also a reasonable argument for a more flexible, freewheeling labor market, and other dreamy American-style policies. That was one of the takeaways from Russell Shorto's big Times Magazine piece last year on fertility in the developed world, for instance. Like Goldberg, Shorto argued that the combination of a modern economy and a patriarchal social model leaves you with the worst of both worlds where fertility is concerned: Women are expected to be workers and full-time caregivers (to both children and to aging parents, in many cases), men aren't expected to pick up the slack, and so women end up too overwhelmed to contemplate having a second or a third kid, or even a first. But he also noted that while the Scandinavian combination of liberal social attitudes and generous day care and family-leave provisions produce higher birth rates than Spain and Italy, if you're really looking for replacement-level fertility, you need to turn to the United States:

"Europeans say to me, How does the U.S. do it in this day and age?" says Carl Haub of the Population Reference Bureau in Washington. According to Haub and others, there is no single explanation for the relatively high U.S. fertility rate. The old conservative argument -- that a traditional, working-husband-and-stay-at-home-wife family structure produces a healthy, growing population -- doesn't apply, either in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world today. Indeed, the societies most wedded to maintaining that traditional family structure seem to be those with the lowest birthrates. The antidote, in Western Europe, has been the welfare-state model, in which the state provides comprehensive support to couples that want to have children. But the U.S. runs counter to this. Some commentators explain its healthy birthrate in terms of the relatively conservative and religiously oriented nature of American society, which both encourages larger families. It's also true that mores have evolved in the U.S. to the point where not only is it socially acceptable for fathers to be active participants in raising children, but it's also often socially unacceptable for them to do otherwise.

But one other factor affecting the higher U.S. birthrate stands out in the minds of many observers. "There's much less flexibility in the European system," Haub says. "In Europe, both the society and the job market are more rigid." There may be little state subsidy for child care in the U.S., and there is certainly nothing like the warm governmental nest that Norway feathers for fledgling families, but the American system seems to make up for it in other ways. As Hans-Peter Kohler of the University of Pennsylvania writes: "In general, women are deterred from having children when the economic cost -- in the form of lower lifetime wages -- is too high. Compared to other high-income countries, this cost is diminished by an American labor market that allows more flexible work hours and makes it easier to leave and then re-enter the labor force." An American woman might choose to suspend her career for three or five years to raise a family, expecting to be able to resume working; that happens far less easily in Europe.

Incidentally, this is a point that the Willetts report makes as well, though Goldberg doesn't mention it: The intersection of traditional gender roles and a modern economy may be driving down the birth rate in Italy, but that explanation doesn't hold up for Germany, where social attitudes are more liberal, and so Willetts spends a lot of time talking about ... the impact of Germany's labor market regulations on family formation.

In other words, saying that "feminism is the new natalism" doesn't necessarily mean that statism is the new natalism. If you're a "choice feminist," interested in maximizing female (and male, for that matter) freedom to choose to work or to choose not to, you may find more to like about the American way of parenting. (And you might be looking for reforms - like, ahem, a more pro-family tax structure - that would increase the flexibility that our model currently affords to parents.) If you're more of a Linda Hirshman-style feminist, on the other hand, you'll probably prefer the Scandinavian model, where after the guaranteed family leave runs its course, the socialized day care effectively incentivizes parents to get (back) to work whether they want to or not.

On the question of whether the latter model is really as empowering as its advocates assume, it's worth quoting Sandra Tsing Loh:

The debate about mothers and work: it always ends--doesn't it?--with Sweden. Oh, if America could only be like Sweden--such a humane society, with its free day care for working mothers and its government subsidies of up to $11,900 per child per year. The problem? One hates to be Mrs. Red-State Republican Bringdown, but yes ... the taxes. Currently, the top marginal income-tax rate in Sweden is nearly 60 percent (down from its peak in 1979 of 87 percent). Government spending amounts to more than half of Sweden's GDP ... On the upside, government spending creates jobs: from 1970 to 1990, a whopping 75 percent of Swedish jobs created were in the public sector ... providing social welfare services ... almost all of which were filled by women. Uh-oh. In short, as Gilbert points out, because of the 40 percent tax rate on her husband's job, a new mother may be forced to take that second, highly taxed job to supplement the family's finances; in other words, she leaves her toddlers behind from eight to five (in that convenient universal day care) so she can go take care of other people's toddlers or empty the bedpans of elderly strangers. (As Alan Wolfe has pointed out, "the Scandinavian welfare states which express so well a sense of obligation to distant strangers, are beginning to make it more difficult to express a sense of obligation to those with whom one shares family ties.")

That's from Tsing Loh's review of Neil Gilbert's fascinating A Mother's Work: How Feminism, the Market, and Policy Shape Family Life. If you're interested in this topic, you should read the whole thing, and the whole thing.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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