There are many ways society can boost the fertility rate that don't
involve government handouts.
There are two approaches one can take to the decline in fertility. One
is to shrug it off and say there is nothing we can do about it. (Now it is
one thing to be blasè if the fertility rate is 1.7 children per adult
woman as it is today; it is quite another if, in a few years, it is
heading down below 1.5.) The other is to do something about it.
As a political person I am puzzled why there has not been an
authoritative, detailed survey of women of different ages and backgrounds
finding out what they think.
As a general principle, however, I believe a good litmus test to apply
to the various family policies on offer is to ask: is this initiative
worthwhile in and of itself? Is it equitable in the sense that it assists
women in a wide variety of situations? Does it improve choice or, to use a
trendy word, does it empower rather than disempower?
It is then a question of weighing the initiative's costs both against
other similarly directed initiatives and against other budgetary
Paid maternity leave is a controversial case in point. Nobody would
argue that paid maternity leave is anything but a good thing. Employers
who provide it should be applauded. The question is this: given the
limited resources available to the community, is taxpayer-funded maternity
leave the best and most effective means of helping women to balance the
demands of work and family? Is there a risk that taxpayer-funded paid
maternity leave would assist only those women who were in full-time work
at the time of the pregnancy?
One thing is clear: there is a vast diversity in women's choices about
work and family. One size does not fit all and additional public support
for families must, as far as possible, be seen to support women with
children without favouring those at home or in work or, as is the case
with a majority, somewhere in between.
My own, admittedly inexpert, sense is that we should seriously consider
replacing what is a fairly complex system of child and child-care support
with a single payment to each mother per child. In principle is there any
reason why the state should spend differential amounts in respect of a
child based on whether the mother of that child works full-time, part-time
or cares for the child at home? There are a number of other areas where we
can usefully promote positive social values which may have an impact on
fertility but, in any event, are worth doing in and of themselves:
* We must change our work culture to make it genuinely supportive of
parents with responsibilities for children.
You do not need to be a social scientist to recognise that while women
may have broken through the glass ceiling it is all too often with the
tacit proviso that they leave their children behind.
* One possible way of encouraging better workplace flexibility would be
to require companies to publish in their annual reports details of
measures they have undertaken to promote a pro-family workplace. This
would be done in the same way companies disclose, for example, their
corporate governance arrangements.
* We should not be afraid to make the case for marriage. There is a
very high correlation (higher than there is for race or poverty) in most
of the research between the absence of the biological father and child
poverty, juvenile crime and sexual abuse.
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