Sign Up

Want More Kids? What Can Governments Do?

Will gender equality in itself bring an end to below-replacement fertility?

December 9, 2010

Will gender equality in itself bring an end to below-replacement fertility?

Fertility rates have fallen below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman in 76 countries, representing nearly half of the world's population. And in 25 of those countries — which include Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, South Korea and Spain — fertility levels are even lower, at 1.5 children per woman or less.

Many governments view their below-replacement fertility as a serious national crisis, jeopardizing the basic foundations of the nation and threatening its survival.

Economic growth and vitality, defense, pensions and health care for the elderly, for example, are all areas of major concern. In response, governments are instituting measures and reviewing a broad spectrum of possible policies that aim to raise birth rates.

Attempts to raise fertility back to the replacement level may be grouped into six broad categories. First, governments may prohibit contraception, abortion and the education and employment of women, as was done by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

While those restrictions may be demographically effective, such measures are widely considered unacceptable — and violate basic human rights. The practice of early marriage, i.e., in the early teenage years or even prior to puberty, is also seen as falling within this set of unacceptable policies.

The second group of policies focuses on the promotion of marriage, child-bearing and parenting through various means, including public relations campaign and match-making services.

Many public relations campaigns highlight the vital role of maternity and motherhood, stressing that women are making a valuable contribution to the welfare of the family and the growth of the nation.

Those policies have been especially prominent among a number of East Asian countries, including Japan, Singapore and South Korea, as well as Australia.

One recently launched campaign by South Korea had the slogan, "Let's Have One More Kid." And another in Australia said, "Have one for mum, one for dad and one for the country." Such appeals, however, have little impact on raising fertility to replacement levels.

The third category of pro-natalist policies, perhaps the most common, aims at transferring some of the costs related to child-bearing and child-rearing from the parents to the broader society.

Examples of these policies include cash bonuses and/or recurrent cash supplements for births or dependent children, infant and childcare facilities, as well as pre-school and after-school care facilities. Recently, payments of cash bonuses for the birth of a child — or additional children — have been popular in some European countries, such as France and Italy.

Fourth, a related set of policies, especially popular among many Western countries, is aimed primarily at assisting women combine their labor force participation and family-building responsibilities.

Measures to make employment demands and family responsibilities "compatible" for working couples, especially working women, include extended maternity leave — now 50 weeks in Canada, 58 weeks in Japan and 90 weeks in Norway — part-time work, flexible working hours, working at home and family-friendly workplaces, including worksite nurseries.

Based on national experiences during the past quarter century, such government policies may be able to influence fertility in an upward direction.

In response to such incentives, couples tend to elect to temporarily modify their fertility behavior by having births earlier than they may have desired. However, these changes in timing give rise only to short-term increases in birth rates. Afterwards, the fertility of many of these couples returns to the longer-term low fertility levels.

A fifth approach is often offered in parallel — that is, analogous policies are directed at men. These measures, particularly common among Scandinavian countries, aim to increase the involvement of men in activities that have been traditionally considered female (e.g., parenting, family maintenance and household chores and related responsibilities).

Although those measures include paternity leave, the principal emphasis is on encouraging husbands to share the rearing of children and undertaking of housework more equally with their wives.

The key question that arises in this instance is whether the promotion of gender equality both at work and in the home will raise low fertility. Stated slightly differently, will gender equality in itself bring an end to below-replacement fertility?

Many governments, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and others seem to think so. They strongly promote gender equality at work and in the home as a fundamental principle and desirable social goal.

However, it is not at all evident how having men and women participate equally in employment, parenting and household responsibilities will raise fertility to the replacement level.

On the contrary, the equal participation of men and women in the labor force, child rearing and housework chores points precisely in the opposite direction: Toward below-replacement fertility. And this is in fact precisely what is being observed today in an increasing number of countries.

The sixth and final group of policy measures centers on financial, political and legal preferences to couples with children. This includes giving parents priorities or assistance in securing mortgages, loans, low-cost or subsidized housing, welfare assistance, government services and benefits.

While seemingly attractive, most working couples find those measures provide insufficient support for rearing more than one child without a great deal of stress.

Despite all these efforts, for government pro-natalist policies to be effective, they will have to overcome powerful forces leading to below-replacement fertility.

Most prominent perhaps are the high costs and considerable time needed to properly rear and educate children in an increasingly globalized and competitive urban world. The average cost, for example, of raising a child to age 17 for American parents is $222,000.

The expanding opportunities for women for higher education, careers and economic independence, coupled with highly effective contraception and lifestyle changes, also exert tremendous downward pressures on fertility. As a consequence, many young women are postponing — or avoiding altogether — the onset of motherhood.

In addition, as the wage levels of men and women rise, the opportunity costs for bearing a child, and staying at home to rear the child, also rise — and they do so globally. And therefore, increased earnings often result in lower fertility and higher female employment.

So then, can government policies raise fertility to the replacement level? Based on past experience and taking into account the social, economic and political constraints facing governments in this realm of human behavior, the policies and measures that governments are able to realistically implement and offer to couples are unlikely to raise low fertility rates to replacement levels anytime soon.

More on this topic


The average cost of raising a child to age 17 for American parents is $222,000.

As the wage levels of men and women rise, the opportunity costs for bearing a child, and staying at home to rear the child, also rise.

The expanding opportunities for women in higher education exert tremendous downward pressures on fertility.

For government pro-natalist policies to be effective, they have to overcome below-replacement fertility.