July 1, 2008

WHILE ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE IS USELESS...:

What's the Matter With Everywhere Other Than Scandinavia and the United States? (Kerry Howley | June 30, 2008, Reason)

As developed nations with unusually high birth rates, what distinguishes the United States and Sweden is less important than what they share, and what they share are relatively liberalized gender norms. The relevant divide is not over the provision of lavish benefits or the flexibility of the labor markets, but over the traditionalism and stigmatization Aassve mentions as an afterthought. In the United States, as in Nordic countries, working shortly after bearing children is less frowned upon than it is in Southern Europe and Asia. Women feel less pressured to choose between education and motherhood, and frequently choose both. Unsurprisingly, men in Southern Europe and Asia are less likely to help with housework or child care. Here is how Bruce Sacerdote and James Feyrer put it in a recent NBER study on the relationship between household status and fertility:

We believe that changes in the status of women are driving fertility change. At low levels of female status, women specialize in household production and fertility is high. In an intermediate phase, women have increasing opportunities to earn a living outside the home yet still shoulder the bulk of household production. Fertility is at a minimum in this regime due to the increased opportunity cost in women's foregone wages with no decrease in time allocated to childcare. We see the lowest fertility nations (Japan, Spain, Italy) as being in this regime. At even higher levels of women's status, men begin to share in the burden of child care at home and fertility is higher than in the middle regime. This progression has been observed in the US, Sweden and other countries.

While it's plausible that the government can help liberalize norms by subsidizing daycare and supporting working women, it's important not to conflate social acceptance with government incentives. You cannot simply start throwing benefits at a socially conservative society and wait for babies; were this an effective strategy, we would be seeing a lot more tiny Singaporeans. Pro-natalist incentives (which should probably be distinguished from an all-encompassing welfare state) may have a very small effect on birth rates, but the sudden, small increases demographers see may just reflect a difference in the timing of births. In other words, natalist incentives may encourage women to have the same number of kids today rather than tomorrow.


...we're familiar with one neighborhood family where the husband pleaded for another kid so he wouldn't have to go back to work, but The Wife bought a designer dog instead. Stinkin' liberal gender norms....

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 1, 2008 4:10 PM
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