A Republican senator, Mitt Romney, joined Democrats this month in supporting an idea: a monthly child allowance for parents. One reason, he said, was to increase the number of births.
Family policies have lots of goals, including decreasing child poverty, helping parents manage work and family, and improving children’s health and education. But would a child allowance increase fertility?
Research from around the world suggests that, like other fertility policies, payments to parents do slightly increase the number of babies people have in the near term. But no move has made a major long-term difference, and payments are not as effective as other policies, particularly subsidized child care.
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The proposed payments also raise another question: whether encouraging people to have more children should be a policy goal in the first place.
“Much better, more effective and better for human rights, is to create conditions that allow people to control their fertility, and have children if they want to,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist studying demographics at the University of Maryland.
Government benefits to encourage women to have children, known as pronatalist policies, are common in other rich countries, where the birthrate began falling well before it did in the United States, around 2008. Governments worry about declining fertility for many reasons, including that the next generation finances the safety net and provides the caregivers, inventors and public servants of the future.
The birthrate in the United States fell in part because of large decreases in births among two groups: teenage and Hispanic women. The Great Recession also contributed to the fertility decline — births have sunk below replacement level since then, and there are indications that the pandemic may decrease fertility further. American women are also waiting longer to have babies.
There are many reasons. Would-be parents face challenges like the rising cost of child care, record student debt, a lack of family-friendly policies, workplace discrimination against mothers, and concerns about climate change and political unrest. At the same time, women have more options for their lives than ever before and more control over their reproduction. As countries become wealthier, and as women have more opportunities, fertility rates decline, data shows.
The problem, social scientists say, is if would-be parents are not having babies they want because society has made it too hard, too expensive and too solitary a job. This is called unmet fertility, and financial concerns are a driving factor.
“The framework I prefer is about reproductive autonomy,” said Sarah Cowan, a sociologist studying fertility at New York University. The concern, she said, is if people who want children cannot have them because they cannot afford to: “That’s an inequality that I can’t abide.”
This is where family policies can help, including child allowances. Research from other countries shows that direct payments lead to a slight increase in birthrates — at least at first. In Spain, for instance, a child allowance led to a 3% increase in birthrates; when it was canceled, birthrates dropped 6%. The benefit seems to encourage women to have children earlier, but not necessarily to have more of them — so even if it increases fertility in a given year, it doesn’t have large effects over a generation.
In addition to the international evidence, there is data on the effect of direct payments on parents in the United States. Alaskans get a payment each year, based on oil revenues. Because it varies annually and increases with the number of children, researchers have been able to examine its impact on fertility. Payments increased fertility, their studies have shown. A study that covered the years 1984 to 2010 found the increase was bigger for some groups: Alaskan Natives; those without college degrees; and unmarried women.
“These groups had economic barriers to enacting their fertility goals, and this cash somehow was enough,” said Kiara Douds, a doctoral candidate in sociology at New York University who wrote the study with Cowan.
The Alaska data, like that of Europe, suggests that women had babies earlier, but most didn’t necessarily end up having more. The biggest increase in fertility was among people 25 to 34 and for first births, but there was little change in third births.
Some countries have focused their policies on encouraging larger families, largely as a way to fend off immigration, a strategy common among right-wing populists. Hungary has given women who have at least four children a lifelong exemption from personal income tax; provided free fertility treatments; and subsidized cars with seven or more seats for families of three or more children, among other measures.
President Joe Biden has proposed a monthly child allowance for a year, to help get families through the pandemic, while Romney’s plan would be permanent. Experts say it would be more durable and effective to pursue a full package of policies that support families.
“Cash now might help cushion the immediate decline associated with this crisis, but I think health care, child care, housing and job support would all matter more,” Cohen said.
Public child care is the only policy that has been shown to increase fertility in a lasting way, research shows, especially if its quality is high, and if it’s available for children of all ages and covers a range of work hours. Parental leave helps if it’s paid, and if it’s not too long (otherwise it can end up making it harder for parents to keep up at work). So can policies that decrease obstacles to having babies: things like subsidizing fertility treatments, education and housing.
Long work hours, especially in countries where men work 45 hours or more a week on average, are associated with decreases in fertility. So are work cultures that make it difficult to work part time, or to increase or decrease hours as family responsibilities change.
France, which has among the higher birthrates in Europe, has policies focused on improving the well-being of children and parents. The policies include family allowances; tax breaks for families; housing assistance; public child care; and 35-hour workweeks.
Japan has put in place many family policies to try to reverse sharp population declines. But they have been offset by other factors, including long, rigid work hours and strict gender roles.
“Single policy measures are unlikely to increase fertility, especially when they are modeled on the outdated assumptions about families and gender roles,” wrote researchers from the Wittgenstein Centre, a research group in Vienna that studies population dynamics, in a paper for the United Nations Population Fund.
“Policies should respond to diverse needs of the population and not to the ideological beliefs of the policymakers,” they wrote.
In the U.S., Democrats have generally been more supportive than Republicans of government-supported family policies, seeing them as ways to decrease child poverty, recognize the value of parents’ unpaid labor and help women continue to work after becoming mothers.
Recently, some Republicans have argued that the party should do more to support families, but they have long tended to disagree on how much or whether mothers should be working. A child allowance appeals to them because it subsidizes families — regardless of whether mothers work — and gives parents freedom in how to spend it.
The U.S. is a challenging place to raise children, as the pandemic has made painfully clear. Family policies are unlikely to do much in the way of significantly increasing fertility. But they could provide parents with relief, and make for a more family-friendly society.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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