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Ten policies for renewing family life

The state of the family in many advanced societies is unsustainable. Which public policies could reverse this decline?
Phillip Longman | 17 October 2011
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empty-cradle

In the central part of the Sustained Demographic Development report, The Empty Cradle, Phillip Longman and others track in detail the patterns of demographic decline globally and their causes. At the end, the authors propose 10 key policies for reversing this decline and reinvigorating the economy. MercatorNet reproduces those policies here, in the second of three excerpts from the report.

 

What then are the appropriate policy responses to the unsustainable state of family life in many advanced societies? Here are ten proposals that might be helpful:

1. PROMOTE FAMILY ENTERPRISE.
The last generation has seen a rapid increase in corporate consolidation. Whereas rigorous enforcement of antitrust and other policies preserved an important role for small-scale family farms and businesses until the 1980s, today there is almost no check on the growth of giant retailers, agribusinesses, and industrial concerns. As British social theorist Philip Blond has written, “Our fishmongers, butchers, and bakers are driven out—converting a whole class of owner occupiers into low wage earners, employed by supermarkets.” Though it is not possible, or even desirable, to entirely reverse these trends toward monopolization, it is possible to moderate them and thereby carve out more space for family enterprise and entrepreneurship, which will in turn help to rebuild the economic foundation of the family. A good start would be to offer payroll tax breaks to small businesses and to more rigorously enforce existing antitrust laws.

2. INCREASE INCOME SECURITY FOR YOUNG COUPLES.
Young couples contemplating starting a family now face far greater risk than their parents typically did that they will face repeated spells of un- and underemployment. As political scientist Jacob Hacker has demonstrated, even before the Great Recession of 2008, the size of swings in pretax family income from year to year had doubled in the United States since the early 1970s. In Europe, many young adults typically find themselves maneuvering from contract to contract, rather than being able to settle into a secure career that will support a family. In the developing world, young adults often find themselves trying to get ahead amid the swirl of hypercompetitive megacities that seem to have literally no room for children.

There is no single policy lever to pull that will put the family back into a healthy and sustainable balance with global market forces. We must grapple with issues like foreign trade, offshore employment, and downsizing. Yet it is essential that measures of efficiency not be so narrowly defined that they discount the vital role that secure, functioning families play in sustaining economic progress. To soften the blows young adults face from income and employment instability associated with globalization, countries should ensure access to affordable health care and lifetime learning to keep job skills from becoming obsolete.

3. EASE THE TENSION BETWEEN HIGHER EDUCATION AND FAMILY FORMATION.
A woman’s education strongly predicts how many children she will have. For American women age 40– 44 in 2008, the average number of children among those with advanced degrees was just 1.6, compared to 2.4 for those who never graduated from high school. Fully 21.5 percent of highly educated woman remain childless throughout their lives, compared to only 15 percent of high-school dropouts.

To some extent, these disparities simply reflect differing individual priorities and preferences. They also reflect, however, the severe obstacles placed in the way of couples who want to start families while they are still biologically capable of doing so and at the same time want to pursue higher education. Under our current system of higher education, a woman who wants to, say, interrupt her education at age 20 to start a family and then return to school at age 30 will face steep handicaps in gaining admission. Institutions of higher learning, as well as employers, should include parents in their attempts to build diversity and overcome historical patterns of discrimination.49

4. BUILD LIVABLE, FAMILY-FRIENDLY COMMUNITIES.
Around the world, high-cost housing is closely associated with low birth rates. This is particularly true in Japan, South Korea, Europe, and coastal China.50 Though housing is comparatively affordable in most parts of the United States, deteriorating public schools in many areas force parents into bidding wars for homes in good school districts or compel them to pay for private school or limit their family size. At the same time, underinvestment in transportation—particularly efficient, affordable mass transit—is forcing parents in many parts of the United States and Canada to endure long commutes that have a negative financial and emotional impact on family life.51 Suburbia, once a fount of fertility, needs to be refitted and modernized to make it family friendly again.

The policy responses needed to address these threats to the family are much easier to state than to achieve. Yet such vital reforms as improving public education, reducing automobile dependency, and fostering walkable communities will perhaps be easier if these goals are tied to the needs of the family. Salt Lake City, which has the highest birth rate of any American metropolitan area, has since the late 1990s made a huge and successful commitment to containing sprawl and building light-rail under the influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.52

5. HONOR WORK-FAMILY IDEALS OF ALL WOMEN.
Women are diverse in their life preferences, no less so when it comes to the balance of motherhood and career than in any other realm. For example, in the United States, about one-fifth of married mothers state that their ideal preference is to remain in full-time employment; almost half prefer to work part-time only, and a full one-third prefer to avoid working outside the home while they raise children.53 Though the proportions of women expressing preference for one of these three broad options varies over time and among countries, research shows that the ratios are remarkably consistent. In general in developed nations, about 20 percent of women favor a home-centered life, 60 percent prefer a life that combines career and family, and about 20 percent are primarily concerned with career only.54

Unfortunately, government family policy often ignores this diversity among women. Instead, there is often bias toward the needs of working mothers and neglect of those of home-centered mothers. Pronatalist policies are not likely to be effective if they primarily target career-oriented women; such women are not only a minority in any national population but are generally the most resistant to increased childbearing. As sociologist Catherine Hakim points out, family policy that is aimed only at the particular problems of two-paycheck families fails “to recognize and accept the heterogeneity of women’s (and men’s) lifestyle preferences.”55

Policy makers should embrace programs such as the highly successful Finnish homecare allowance, which provides parents who do not use public childcare with a stipend that they can use for their own family budget—or to pay a grandparent, neighbor, friend, or nanny to care for their children. In Finland, the allowance is less expensive than the cost of public childcare and is linked to increases in fertility.56 Most importantly, it has allowed women to choose the best caregiving option for themselves and their families.

6. SUPPORT MARRIAGE AND RESPONSIBLE PARENTHOOD.
There are limits to what any government can or should do to promote marriage as an institution. Nonetheless, public policy should stop penalizing marriage and should also support initiatives to educate the public about the benefits of marriage and the hazards of single parenthood. This is no different in kind from government efforts to educate the public about the benefits of properly installed car seats for children or the hazards of smoking.

First, many public policies unintentionally penalize marriage by reducing or eliminating public benefits to parents who marry and thereby have access to two incomes rather than one.57 Public policies aimed at families should either be offered on a universal basis or should allow the two parents to split their income when it comes to determining the family’s eligibility for public support.

Second, governments should test the effectiveness of social-marketing campaigns on behalf of marriage— especially those connecting marriage and parenthood. Experience has shown that well-designed social- marketing campaigns aimed at changing sexual behavior, drug use, and smoking habits can have a positive impact.58 In some cases, the impact of these campaigns has proved to be modest. Yet the extraordinary cost, both to individuals and society, of contending with, for example, out-of-wedlock births, makes social marketing aimed at changing such behaviors likely to be cost effective. These campaigns can also generate a larger, salutary conversation in the society at large about the importance of marriage for raising children.

7. PROMOTE THRIFT.
Young adults in today’s developed countries, and increasingly in developing nations as well, are encumbered by debt to an unprecedented degree. According to the Project On Student Debt, the average American college graduate in the class of 2009 faces $24,000 in student loans, a figure that has risen by 6 percent every year since 2003.59 Mountains of credit-card debt also now typically encumber young couples contemplating whether to start a family; this is an obvious discouragement to fertility.

Better consumer-finance-protection laws and enforcement are part of the solution, from putting caps on usurious lending to enforcing standardized, easy-to-understand contracts for credit cards and mortgages. So is restoring the ethos of thrift that historically was a pillar of the thriving working- class and middle-class family. Until it petered out in the 1960s, Americans celebrated “Thrift Week” pegged to Benjamin Franklin’s birthday on January 17. Until the 1960s, public schools ran their own small banks for students, allowing millions of American children to better learn financial literacy and the habits of thrift. Savings and loans encouraged thrift through Christmas savings plans. And so on. We need to renew this ethos for our day. Restoring thrift is a generational project but also a prerequisite to restoring the health and fertility of the modern family.60

8. ADJUST THE FINANCING OF THE WELFARE STATE TO MEET THE NEEDS OF AN AGING SOCIETY.
All pension and health-care benefits, including those conveyed through the private sector, are ultimately financed by babies and those who raise and educate them. Yet in modern societies, the “nurturing sector” of the economy is starved for resources. Parents in particular rarely receive any material compensation for the sacrifices they make on behalf of their children.

Here is a suggestive policy idea for allowing the nurturing sector to keep a greater share of the value it creates for society: Say to the next generation of young adults, have one child, and your payroll taxes, which support the elderly, will drop by one-third. A second child would be worth a two-thirds reduction in payroll taxes. Have three or more children, and pay no payroll taxes until your youngest child turns 18. When it comes time to retire, your benefits (and your spouse’s) will be calculated just as if you had both been contributing the maximum tax during the period in which you were raising children, provided that all your children have graduated from high school.

9. CLEAN UP THE CULTURE.
Television and other global media, as we’ve already seen, appear to have played a big role in driving birth and marriage rates down. From pop stars’ efforts to push the sexual envelope, to Hollywood films, violent video games, and ubiquitous Internet pornography, the global media sends a strong message to young people around the world that a family-centered way of life is passé.

To some extent, these cultural excesses and distortion can be expected to correct themselves. Just as during the Victorian age, when fear of underpopulation, particularly among elites, led to a reformation in manners and morals, there will be less and less tolerance for those who do not contribute children to society or whose activities contribute to children’s moral corruption. But Hollywood film makers, advertisers, and other cultural merchants need to catch up with the new demographic reality and become aware that we now live in a world in which strong families can no longer be taken for granted—much less endlessly mocked and trivialized.

10. RESPECT THE ROLE OF RELIGION AS A PRONATAL FORCE.
Childlessness and small families are increasingly common among secularists. Meanwhile, in Europe and the Americas, as well as in Israel, the rest of the Middle East, and beyond, there is a strong correlation between adherence to orthodox Christian, Islamic, or Judaic religious values and larger, stable families.

In recognition of the contribution that religion makes to family life and fertility, governments should not persecute people of faith for holding or expressing views that are informed by religious tradition, including ones that buck progressive or nationalist sensibilities. Alas, such persecution is now common in some countries around the world, from Canada to China to France.61 Faith brings hope, and ultimately it is hope that replenishes the human race.

None of these ten proposals is anywhere near adequate to solve the challenges created by the new demographics of the twenty-first century. Yet they are suggestive of the philosophical approach that is needed—one that emphasizes the critical role of the intact, nurturing, and financially secure family in sustaining and renewing the human, social, and financial capital of aging societies around the globe.

Phillip Longman is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.; Paul Corcuera is a professor and investigator at Instituto de Ciencias para la Familia at Universidad de Piura (Peru); Laurie DeRose, Ph.D., is a research assistant professor in the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland, College Park; Marga Gonzalvo Cirac, Ph.D., is a professor and researcher at the Institut d’Estudis Superiors de la Familia (IESF) at the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya (Spain); Andres Salazar is a professor and investigator at Instituto de La Familia at Universidad de La Sabana (Colombia); Claudia Tarud Aravena is the director of the Family Science Institute at the University of the Andes (Chile); and Antonio Torralba is an associate professor, a university fellow, and trustee of the University of Asia and the Pacific (Philippines).

Reproduced with permission. Read the orginal version for footnotes.

Next: The report finds that, throughout the world, support for the institution of the family is strong.

Copyright © Phillip Longman . Published by MercatorNet.com. You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication.

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