by Bill MuehlenbergNews Weekly
Falling fertility debate reignited
, July 14, 2001
The debate over family policy and falling fertility rates has been fired by a paper by ANU demographer Professor Peter MacDonald.
Writing in the June issue of People and Place,
MacDonald argues that current government policies are skewed in favor of the "male bread-winner model" and this is out of step with the wishes of most Australian mothers. He suggests that we change government policies to make the paid workplace more attractive for young mothers, provide more high-quality day care, and encourage more role-reversal, that is, encourage men to do more work in the home, while we encourage more women to pursue paid careers.
Such changes in policy, MacDonald argues, would be more in step with 21st Century Australian society, and would also address our declining birthrate problem.Age
columnist Bettina Arndt questioned MacDonald's claim that tax and family policies are weighted against those who want to get into the workplace. She acknowledges that while current family benefits do offer some disincentives for women returning to the paid workplace after having children, this mainly applies to lower income families - at higher income levels these disincentives disappear.
She cited evidence from Lucy Sullivan of the Centre for Independent Studies and Anne Harding of Canberra University that economic disincentives are a mixed bag, with many families who want children disadvantaged by the current tax and family benefits system.
She went on to argue that MacDonald's main solution is the expansion of high-quality day care, especially for mums whose children are over the age of one. His claim that France is a role model here was challenged by Arndt.
Citing research from an important new book by British sociologist Catherine Hakim (soon to be reviewed in News Weekly), Arndt argued that the French system, while offering helpful child care policies, had a real crisis in fertility that was only turned around recently by strong pro-natalist policies.
Hakim shows that the clear majority of French women want government policies to allow them to spend time with their young children, rather than simply offer more improved child care services.
Several days later MacDonald again went on the attack, arguing that Arndt had misrepresented his argument. He restated his original position, taking a few swipes at Arndt along the way.
Interestingly, he didn't refute - in fact, he didn't even mention - the evidence marshaled by Sullivan, Harding, and Hakim. He simply assumes that for the overwhelming majority of women, life in the paid workforce is a fait accompli, and we need not even ask if this is so, or if it preferable, or if it is in fact desired by most young mothers.
A number of surveys have found that most mothers would prefer to be at home with their small children. Many feel they are conscripted into the paid workforce against their wishes, but tough economic times often compel them to do so.
Yet a majority of mothers with young children have consistently said that they would rather be at home for the first year or two of their child. One survey of 4,511 adults found that 69 per cent of respondents preferred that the mother stay home when she had pre-school children.
Australian National University research found that only 4 per cent of respondents felt that women with pre-school children should work full time, while only 31 per cent thought they should be in the labour force part-time.
Another survey discovered that one-third of working women who put their infants in child care centres would prefer not to work if they had the choice.
A comprehensive study undertaken in Britain has showed an overwhelming preference for home. The study found that 81 per cent of mothers would choose to stay home if they could afford to. Only six per cent said they wanted to continue working full-time.
A 1997 survey by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that 83 per cent of women and 84 per cent of men believe that mothers should not work full-time, even when their youngest child is at school. Almost two-thirds of the respondents felt that families suffered if women work full-time.Falling fertility
One issue most of the main players in the debate can agree on is the decline in Australian - and Western - fertility rates. There is agreement not only that the decline exists, but that it represents a major problem in need of urgent correction.
Indeed, recent Government discussion papers have examined the tandem problems of the current birth dearth, and the rapid expansion in the population of the elderly. These two factors taken together spell trouble.
Simply put, how will we be able to finance the age pension and the health and aged care systems, with fewer breadwinners and more pensioners and the elderly? The entire rationale of the welfare system may have to be rethought. The viability of the welfare system is based on the ability of current workers helping to finance our elderly and retired population. If that becomes unsustainable then we are all in big trouble.
Government reports which discuss these issues do not have any clear solutions to such problems. They do note that "any policy that reduces the cost of having and raising children will have a positive effect on fertility". Thus more family-friendly policies are an important part of the solution.
Yet government policies along with social and cultural trends have tended to move in the opposite direction. Instead of encouraging family formation, governments, aided and abetted by feminist ideology, have tended to penalise families while rewarding individuals.
Some governments have sought to encourage fertility rates by various means, realising that more people means more workers, which means a more sustained means of financing the welfare system. They have noted the connection between the rise in female workplace participation, and the declining fertility rates.
Thus some are offering cash incentives and other schemes to encourage women to have more babies, and defer careers for motherhood, at least temporarily.
The Australian Family Association has long argued for a home-maker's allowance and other policies to encourage child bearing and raising.
Both sides of politics are beginning to note the extent of the problem.
Genuine choice for all women, coupled with positive family policies, seem to be a major part of the solution. The way forward is not to dictate in advance that women should be coerced into the paid work force. Nor should they be forced to stay at home.
Women should be given the freedom to attend to the needs of their young children, without feeling guilty about it.
Resisting the feminist hegemony will be difficult, but at least government policies can contribute to a renewed emphasis on the importance of marriage and the value of motherhood