April 24th 2004

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Articles from this issue:

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Islamic militants threaten to derail Iraq hand-over

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Defence reserves crisis looms

FAMILY: AFA report shoots hole in lower fertility theory

National superannuation (letter)

Whither farming? (letter)

True samurais (letter)

UNITED NATIONS: Kofi Annan and the Rwanda genocide

FAMILY: The solution to today's fatherhood crisis

FEEDING TUBES: Pope condemns 'euthanasia by omission'

BOOKS: The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit, by A.J. Conyers

COVER STORY: Federal inquiry puts brakes on river flow plans

COVER STORY 2: Report vindicates farmers over Murray-Darling Basin

EDITORIAL: Family Congress confronts new challenges

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Budget - next test for Federal Government

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Pumpernickel politics / Latham's folly / George Carey

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AFA report shoots hole in lower fertility theory

by Patrick J. Byrne

News Weekly, April 24, 2004
The Australian Family Association-sponsored report by Monash researcher Dr Bob Birrell, showing that a growing underclass of low-income males is behind the decline in marriage and fertility, has received widespread coverage by Australia's major, and many smaller, media outlets. It has also challenged the dominant idea that Australia's declining fertility is because of insufficient support for working mothers, particularly insufficient child care.

Following the launch of Men and Women Apart: The Decline of Partnering in Australia, major coverage was give to the report on television news (ABC, Channel 10, Channel 7), on the major radio news broadcasts and many trendy FM stations, on the ABC PM program, on radio breakfast shows and in the mainstream capital city newspapers, including the Melbourne Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, Canberra Times, Brisbane's Courier Mail, the Adelaide Advertiser, the Australian Financial Review, and the West Australian.

The report has also received considerable interest from an array of important research organisations, trade unions and social welfare groups.


The report will challenge governments and political parties to face up to the urgent need for policies to develop industries and full-time jobs, lest this underclass grow larger and further undermine the declining marriage and fertility rates in Australia.

Some newspapers, such as the Australian Financial Review, focused on secondary themes of the report, like the difficulties of tertiary-educated women finding a similarly educated husband.

However, one of the most comprehensive commentaries came from Bettina Arndt, which appeared in both The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.

In summarising the report, Bettina Arndt said that most women will not choose to have a child until they are in a secure relationship, and the chances of this happening are being undermined because of "the large numbers of low-income men destined to spend their lives on their own."

"While more women are having children on their own or in de facto relationships, most limit their families in these less stable circumstances."

She said that the resultant sharp decline in levels of partnering, and particularly marriage, during the peak child-bearing years, is the major cause behind the decline in fertility.

"The young women who do marry show no hesitation in starting their families - since 1986 there has been no drop in the 85 per cent of married women aged 35 to 39 who have at least one child. Although more women are now having children on their own or in de facto relationships, fertility rates are far lower for these unmarried women.

"So, it's hazardous partnering patterns that are screwing up our fertility levels. Increasing numbers waste precious child-rearing years in de facto relationships and end up partnerless as their fertility declines. The number of partnerless women in their 30s nearly doubled between 1986 and 2001, according to the Birrell data.

"Then there are the growing numbers of women who have a child on their own or in a de facto relationship (30 per cent of all births in 2001). Sure, they still contribute to the country's fertility rate, but most of the women now falling into this pattern are drawn from the group who in the past did most to boost our fertility: the less educated women who used to have the most children.

"This group is now missing the key ingredient which encouraged them to start families and have more children – the stability and commitment provided by marriage," she commented.

Bettina Arndt pointed out an important part of the solution was "job creation" thereby improving the economic and hence the social prospects of these [low-income] men.

"But their situation also highlights the importance of the boy problem in schools. If the trend continues for large numbers of boys to fail to achieve in school, our society faces a dim future - with more and more children growing up in fatherless families."

Bettina Arndt said that this study shoots a large hole in the major thesis which has dominated the fertility debate in this country.

This is the view argued by Anne Summers, feminist commentator and former advisor to the Hawke and Keating governments, that women would have more children if governments provided more childcare, and that the lack of childcare facilities was the major reason for the decline in fertility.

A similar view is expressed by Australian National University demographer, Professor Peter McDonald, who has also argued for more government support for working mothers.

As Arndt says, "these economic disincentives aren't putting married women off having children, as Birrell's analysis shows." The data show that married women show no drop off in starting their families." It is just that they are marrying later, which means that their families are likely to be smaller.

As Arndt concludes, the report shows that "There's a worrying divide emerging in Australian society".

  • Pat Byrne

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