Should governments care about the fertility gap?

Cross-posted from Justice Everywhere

In most rich countries, and increasingly in low and middle income countries, there is a ‘fertility gap’: people say they want to have more children than they end up having. For example, two-thirds of Australian 44 year olds have fewer children than they intended to, working out at one and a half children per parent. While the size of the discrepancy varies from place to place, the pattern is the same in most of Europe and the US:

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Source: Institute for Family Studies

Some have argued that governments ought to respond to the fertility gap with ‘pro-natalist’ policies that encourage their citizens to have children: for example, higher targeted child benefits (eg cash payments or tax credits for parents), more generous parental leave and/or subsidised childcare. I am not so sure. Or at least, I don’t think the mere fact of a fertility gap alone justifies pro-natalist policies. Of course, there is a sense in which governments ought to help their citizens get more of the things they want. But that does not mean each and every unmet desire demands government attention. To take an admittedly frivolous example, if we asked people how many Ferraris they would ideally want, the number would be far higher than the number of Ferraris they actually have. That doesn’t mean we should be unduly worried about the ‘Ferrari gap’.

The force of the fertility gap argument is weakened when we consider that the most plausible explanations for the deficit result from improved opportunities for women: spending more time in education, and greater success in paid work. A sceptic might argue that the fertility gap seems to arise from shifting women’s priorities – so why should that be a cause for government concern?

I think there are three ways of conceiving of the fertility gap that potentially justify pro-natalist policies. I am not here going to make any judgement on whether these characterisations are correct or valid, I am just going to outline them to identify what we need to believe about the fertility gap for it to be a concern for government policy.

Fertility choices have externalities

One reason why governments may be interested in citizens’ fertility choices is the belief that these decisions do not take account of all the relevant interests. Most obviously, the children that parents intend to have but do not actually end up creating may have an interest in being born. The question of whether such potential people have morally relevant interests is fiercely contested in philosophy, but if we believe that there is value in creating new people, then it seems to follow that the government should encourage those already so minded to have more children.

The number of children a person has also may have ramifications for wider society. Many countries are facing the economic, social and political challenges of an ageing population: a smaller workforce, lower savings, greater pressure on public services and lower tax revenue. In such a context, people may have an incentive to encourage their fellow citizens to have children in an effort to reduce these demographic challenges.

In both cases, though, the externality may be negative as well as positive, implying that parents should be discouraged from having children. David Benatar has famously argued that people are actually harmed by being brought into existence. And as Anca Gheaus argued on here just last week, wider society may be harmed by the negative environmental impact of additional children. The externality argument, then, is not straightforward.

The fertility gap is an indicator of disadvantage

A second approach is to say that the fertility gap does not matter per se, but that rather its significant is as a reflection of the lack of money or opportunities faced by some households. I appreciate some readers may have found the Ferrari analogy a bit flippant, so consider another: imagine if some people on average desired three meals a day, but on average only had one. In such a context, I take it we wouldn’t just see this ‘meal gap’ as reflecting the deprioritisation of meals by some people. Rather, I think we would take it as evidence that they are facing unacceptable choices, likely because of deep poverty. Any government response that focused on solely and directly on the meal gap, I think would be rather missing the point: any adequate response should address that underlying poverty, and the other problems it likely causes. In the same way, we may see the fact that some people cannot afford children or cannot combine parenthood with their careers as evidence of the harms of poverty or gender inequality – and reducing that poverty or gender inequality should be the focus of government policy.

The fertility gap is based on irrational decisions

A third reason why the government may be concerned by the fertility gap is if it takes the gap as evidence that people are irrationally acting against their best interests. The failure to have the intended number of children may result from any number of cognitive biases. For example, people may short-sightedly overweight the present versus the future, or be excessively optimistic about their chances of avoiding infertility as they get older. If so, encouraging people to have children may be a legitimate form of government paternalism.

Yet just because we can tell a plausible story about the failures of rationality that possibly lead people to have fewer children than intended, that does not mean that these stories are necessarily true. Sceptics will say that we ought to take people’s revealed preference – the fact they actually chose not to have more children – more seriously than what they say in a survey. Moreover, the evidence that non-parents tend to be happier, ought to give us pause and consider whether having more children really is rational – particularly since there are cognitive biases that may push us towards parenthood as well as away from it.

Conclusion

I have argued that the mere fact people say they want more children than they actually have is insufficient reason for the government to encourage higher fertility. The decision not to have children must, I have suggested, have net negative externalities, be reflective of deeper disadvantage or result from some form of irrationality. I have not here made any judgement as to whether these conditions actually obtain in real life. Note, however, that these different justifications for government intervention may have different policy implications. If the government is encouraging parenthood for the positive externalities, it is likely to be indifferent as to which families have children. By contrast, if it is seeking to remedy disadvantage or irrationality, it ought to focus its attention on the most disadvantaged or most susceptible to cognitive bias. Similarly, if pro-natalism is justified by poverty, that would seem to imply cash benefits are a better policy. If it justified by gender inequity at work, leave policies and childcare may be higher priority. Thus advocates of pro-natalist policies need to do more than just point to the gender wage gap: they need to explain precisely what the problem is they are seeking to address.

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