This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Th Curious Case of the Missing Babies

Today's New York Times has an Op-Ed piece by Steven Philip Kramer, who is professor of grand strategy at the National Defense University’s Industrial College of the Armed Forces. The grand strategy under discussion is how to raise the very low birth rates in southern and eastern Europe, Russia and east Asia (in the article he says developed nations of southeast Asia, but China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea are in east Asia unless he divides up the world differently than do most of the rest of us). The main point of his article is that France and Sweden have avoided very low birth rates by having public policies that support the ability of women to have children and a career at the same time. On this point I am in agreement, as you know if you have read Chapter 10 of my population text. But Professor Kramer pushes his evidence a bit too hard:
France and Sweden, for example, have crafted thoughtful, comprehensive and consistent policy responses that have largely reversed their declining birthrates over the long run...Today, both countries enjoy healthy birthrates — near replacement level in France and slightly below replacement level in Sweden.
It is not exactly true that Sweden and France have "reversed" declining birth rates. Rather, the social policies put in place decades ago (and I emphasize the length of time they have been in place) did not keep birth rates from falling to low levels--they kept on dropping in both countries long after these policies were in place. Rather, they have eventually helped to keep the birth rate from dropping well below replacement level. Furthermore, the idea that "near replacement" level birth rates in France and "slightly below replacement" levels in Sweden are "healthy" is a curious use of the term "healthy." Without immigration these countries would also be on the road to eventual extinction. It is also curious that no mention is made of fertility rates in the UK and Ireland, which according to data from the Population Reference Bureau are virtually identical to Sweden's, but without the same sort of public policies that are in place in either Sweden or France. 

He does, however, touch on the crux of the issue:
Gender equality is also an important ingredient, as are carefully managed immigration and the acceptance of non-traditional family structures, such as unmarried cohabitation. After all, the countries most committed to the traditional family, such as Germany, Italy and Japan, have the lowest birthrates. Countries with high birthrates, in contrast, usually also have large numbers of children born out of wedlock.
Note that when he says "high birthrates" he means those northern European countries that are closer to replacement level (even though still below it) than are the other countries that he is discussing. But, more importantly, let me say that in my opinion the single most important cause of very low fertility in rich countries is the same as the cause of high fertility in less developed countries--the role of women in society. In the truly high fertility societies of today (especially in Africa, western and south Asia), women are not full partners with men in a society and under these circumstances they have more children than they might otherwise have given preferred. In the more developed societies with lower fertility, women have been given the power to become educated and to join the labor force, but in those countries where they do not have the power to be equal to their husbands at home, they will choose other options rather than having children. Thus, lack of power at home creates high fertility when women's rights are completely trampled upon, but it creates very low fertility when women can participate in society, but are not equal in the family.

Public policy may help with this, but it is not a panacea. The policies in Sweden and France have been used by women to gain more control over all aspects of their life, but that really has to happen culturally from the bottom-up. The legislation is likely to be consequence of changes taking place in the societal roles of men and women, rather than the cause of such changes. 

If you want to raise the birth rate in the short-term without a major cultural shift inside the family, you will have to bring in the migrants. That, of course, has been the American way thus far.

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