The relationship between public policy and family formation patterns is a subject that interests me more than just about any other. I can't claim to have made a unique contribution to our understanding on this subject; my own work on family and politics has always treated marriage and parenthood as independent variables -- that is, variables that influence something else, usually something political. But this is a subject that, in my opinion, is badly understudied.
For that reason, I was grateful the hear that Ivanka Trump (of all people) brought up a subject that has not received much attention this election cycle -- or any election cycle, really. Trump argued that the primary explanation for the gender gap in wages is not overt discrimination against women, it is motherhood. Specifically, she said the following at the GOP convention:
Women represent 46 percent of the total U.S. labor force, and 40 percent of American households have female primary breadwinners. In 2014, women made 83 cents for every dollar made by a man. Single women without children earn 94 cents for each dollar earned by a man, whereas married mothers made only 77 cents. As researchers have noted, gender is no longer the factor creating the greatest wage discrepancy in this country, motherhood is.
I hope that this statement will cause at least some people who haven't given it much thought to contemplate the relationship between economics, policy, and the family.
I risk some controversy by personally joining this discussion. I have opinions on these issues that put me at odds with both progressives and conservatives. I am, generally speaking, a pro-natalist. I think society should value parents and children, and that we should have policies that make large families economically feasible for more people.
That position means I simultaneously annoy environmentalists who want zero population growth, free-market conservatives who would insist people pay for their own damned kids, and some feminists who view pro-natalism as a dog-whistle for "barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen."
At the risk of sounding too defensive, I want to preempt the claim that being pro-parenthood is about denying anyone choices in life. If anything, our current economy is leading to smaller families than many people want. We tend to take it for granted that the current low fertility rates are the result of individual preferences. That is, people have small families because they do not desire a large family. There is research indicating that this is actually not true. If people were having as many children as they claimed they want, then below replacement fertility would actually end in many – though not all[i] – countries where it is currently a serious problem. Many people have fewer children than they prefer. Obviously some of that is related to personal issues that society can do little about, but some of it is due to a changing social context that makes parenthood a greater challenge than it needs to be.
On the other side of the divide, some in the traditionalist camp would say that we encourage family formation by returning to the old ways: get women back at home, men back at work, and everyone back in church on Sundays. The religion issue can be dealt with another time, but I think it is important for those who would like to live in a family friendly society to simply accept that women in the workforce is a fact of life. Once this is accepted, we can begin a useful discussion of how to actually make career and parenthood compatible, even if it means violating principles of limited government intervention in the economy.
And at the risk of sounding overly offensive again: no, I am not implying that most cultural traditionalists want to deny women the ability to work. (I now remember why I usually stick to numbers and don't make my own opinions known.)
With all that throat clearing out of the way: we now have some research to guide us as we consider these questions. But as is so often the case, the results of this work do not neatly fit with any particular ideological inclination.
The relationship between support for women in the workforce and family formation is not perfectly linear and it is fairly complex. This becomes apparent when we look at this relationship across countries. Given the hypothesis that a society that encourages women to work will have fewer babies, we should expect countries with the highest female employment rates to have the lowest fertility rates.
But when we look at trends in fertility across the economically-developed world, a paradox becomes apparent. Given the argument that low fertility is driven at least partially by changing social norms, declining religiosity, and women entering the workplace, we could plausibly anticipate that fertility will be lowest in countries that are the most socially liberal, the most secular, have high average levels of educational attainment, and have the highest rates of female employment.
But this is not the case.
In fact, it is in those parts of Europe that remain fairly traditional in their attitudes toward gender that have the most abysmal birthrates. In contrast, while their low levels of fertility are still a source of concern, countries such as France have some of the higher birthrates in Europe – while also being fully committed to feminism, secularism, and keeping women in the workforce.
In Western Europe, those countries that are the most progressive in their support for women in the workplace have seen some of the most significant rebounds in fertility. These countries deliberately developed policies designed to make motherhood compatible with a career. And it is not coincidental that France possesses one of the healthier birthrates in Western Europe.
The last time I checked, the French total fertility rate (TFR) is just below the replacement rate. The CIA estimated the French TFR at 2.08 and the World Bank estimated its TFR at 2. Part of this is due to the large immigrant population in France and the comparatively high fertility of immigrants and the children of immigrants. However, the fertility of native-born French citizens is also higher than is typically found in Western Europe. The relatively healthy fertility rate in France can be at least partially ascribed to explicitly pro-natalist policies pursued by the French government.
As is often the case with these kinds of questions, it is difficult to prove which causal mechanisms influence French fertility. However, some scholars have argued that attitudes toward childcare in France, and government support for childcare, are responsible for the reasonably healthy birthrate.[ii]
In a more traditionalist cultural setting, it is generally accepted that women will have to choose between being mothers and having successful, fulfilling careers. In France and similar countries, according to this argument, it is socially acceptable for women to return to work on a full-time basis shortly after having children, minimizing the damage children impose on women’s careers. By not feeling that they must choose between their careers and having children, French women are more willing to have children at an earlier age.
In France, it is not just socially acceptable to be a mother with full-time employment, but the government actively supports working mothers via subsidized childcare and other costs associated with parenthood. France has long embraced pro-natalist policies, and implemented maternity leave at the start of the 20th century. The last time I checked, France had a very generous maternity leave system, guaranteeing sixteen weeks of maternity leave at 100 percent of normal wages.[iii] France also assures two weeks of paid paternity leave. French parents are also guaranteed the right to take unpaid parental leave for up to one year or transition to part time work after having a child.
The French government also provides a number of additional benefits for parents. Most notably, France developed a “family allowances” program designed to assist families with the costs of children. This program provides financial support to all families with at least two children. This program additionally supplements the income for families that choose to have one parent reduce their working hours during the early years of a child’s life and provides supplements for childcare. For many people, economic considerations play a key role in the decision to have children. By limiting the likelihood that parenthood will permanently damage one’s economic standing and career prospects, the French government weakens that particular disincentive to having children.
It is difficult to discern which of these policies has been most effective at raising the French birthrate. However, it is clear that childlessness in France is lower than elsewhere in Europe and the TFR is higher than the norm. It is also clear that high levels of state investment into families is part of the explanation for France’s relatively healthy TFR.
However, to complicate things further, it should also be noted that French citizens also, on average, have a comparatively positive attitude toward family and parenthood, and this cultural difference may be part of French exceptionalism when it comes to fertility. In France, the average stated ideal number of children is higher than elsewhere in Europe.[iv]
Even more than France, Sweden is committed to gender equality in the workplace. It has also maintained a rather high fertility level by European standards. It is perhaps ironic that, although changing social norms regarding gender and the family certainly played a part in the Second Demographic Transition, those countries that have most fully embraced the ideals of working motherhood and two-earner families were among the first to rebound in fertility.
Sweden has been of great interest to demographers because it was one of the first countries to experience a large fertility decline, it has experienced an unusual amount of fluctuation in its fertility rates, and it has experienced one of the more rapid turnarounds in fertility. A large amount of literature argues that Sweden’s efforts to reconcile female employment and parenthood is the cause of the country’s relatively healthy demographic outlook.[v]
There is another interesting aspect to Sweden’s social policies and its demographic trends. The policies that are now generally credited with the country’s relatively healthy birthrate were not actually intended to raise the birthrate. Instead, they were motivated by the country’s commitment to feminism, individualism, and gender equity – social values that are not generally associated with large families. Sweden has one of the highest rates of female participation in the workforce and rates of educational attainment for women. Sweden has long been known for its extraordinarily generous welfare state – including high-quality public childcare.
The relationship between education and strong families is also quite complex.
On the one hand, in the United States, high levels of education are associated with stronger marriages – those with high levels of education are much less likely to get divorced than those with low levels of education. However, high levels of education are also associated with delayed marriage and childbearing. This is problematic because biological limitations limit how long parenthood can be delayed before infertility becomes a problem.
In Sweden, these problems may be partially ameliorated because their education policy makes it comparably easy to take a break from education and return at a later time without incurring a significant penalty. This greater flexibility may make women feel more comfortable having a child before they have achieved their desired level educational attainment.[vi]
Some traditionalists may prefer that we return to a situation in which families follow a more traditional pattern with one parent the designated economic provider and the other stays home with children. Although fertility was certainly higher, on average, when that was the norm, for cultural and economic reasons, we are unlikely to return to that scenario. However, policies that are designed to help women balance a career and a family seem to have a positive effect on fertility.[vii]
[i] Joshua Goldstein, Wolfgang Lutz, and Maria Rita Testa, “The Emergence of Sub-replacement Family Size Ideals in Europe," Population Research and Policy Review 22(2003) 479-496.
[ii] Jeanne Fagnani, “Why do French Women have more Children than German Women? Family Policies and Attitudes towards Child Care outside the Home.” Community, Work, and Family. 5(2002): 103-119
[iii] “Maternity Leaves Around the World: Worst and Best Countries for Paid Maternity Leave.” Huffington Post Canada, May 22, 2012, accessed February 23, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/05/22/maternity-leaves-around-the-world_n_1536120.html
[iv] Oliver Thévenon, “Does Fertility Respond to Work and Family-Life Reconciliation Policies in France? In Fertility and Public Policy: How to Reverse the Trend of Declining Birth Rates. Eds Takayama and Werding. (Cambridge, MA/London, UK: MIT-Press, 2010)
[v] Jan M. Hoem, “Why Does Sweden have such high Fertility?” Demographic Research 13(2005): 559-572.
[vii] Adriaan Kalwij, “The Impact of Family Policy Expenditure on Fertility in Western Europe,” Demography 47(2010): 503-519