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U.S. has higher birth, marriage rates than Western Europe, despite lack of family-friendly policies

– By all accounts, the 15 countries that comprise the European Union employ a more powerful arsenal of family-friendly social policies than does the United States. Yet, those countries have lower annual rates of marriage and childbearing.

In their article, "The Modern Paradox of Family Policy," published in the September/October issue of Transaction: Social Science and Modern Society, University of California, Berkeley, social welfare professor Neil Gilbert, and California State University, Hayward, sociology and social services assistant professor Rebecca Van Vorhis explore this odd contradiction.

"Although the U.S. has a higher rate of immigration (and immigrants tend to have larger families), and there are wide variations in marriage and childbearing rates among the EU countries, these factors do not account for the U.S.-European paradox of family policy," the authors write.

The United States is widely recognized as lagging far behind the advanced industrialized democracies of Europe in the development of family-friendly social policies such as maternity leave, day care, length of vacations and other benefits that reduce work-family conflicts, Gilbert says.

"Yet, in 2000," he continues, "the U.S. fertility rate of 2.06 - close to the replacement rate of 2.11- was considerably higher than that of the major industrialized countries of Europe."

Fertility rates ranged from 1.22 in Spain and Italy to 1.72 in Britain and 1.74 in France; the rate for Germany was 1.44, Sweden 1.54 and the Netherlands 1.66.

Although the numbers for marriage and childbearing are higher in the United States, the authors acknowledge that they are still low, since they are below replacement rate. They explored three hypotheses for these low numbers.

  • Delayed marriage and childbearing.
    "Birth control and women entering the labor force have changed things," Gilbert says. "People are putting off starting a family. A larger proportion of the population is going on to higher education." But, he adds, delayed choice explains only a fraction of the drop in numbers; it would not account for the level of decline being seen, because eventually, some of these women have children.

  • Calculated choice.
    "It's costly to have kids," Gilbert says, " so people are making a calculated decision to have only one child, or to not have any at all." The authors write: "Calculated choice also supports what might be called the 'female-independence hypothesis,' which is about sex, money and the quality of spousal relationships. According to this explanation, in the wake of the sexual liberation movement and increased female participation in the labor force, women have less need of husbands as economic providers and sexual partners than in earlier times."

  • Women's misjudgment of men's participation.
    "Unlike calculated choice, which implies a rational weighing of the costs and benefits associated with marriage and childbearing, the third explanation submits that the trends here are the result of a misjudgment by women," Gilbert and Van Vorhis write. Since both partners are working, women assume men will take on more responsibility at home, "but men have not stepped up to the plate," Gilbert says. "The bulk of responsibility still falls upon women." Women then think twice about having a second child, he says, or any children at all.
Although these three explanations may to varying degrees account for the overall diminishing of family structure in advanced industrial countries, the authors feel they do not explain how social policy influences that trend. Moreover, Gilbert and Van Vorhis believe they shed no insights into the discrepancy between the strength of family-friendly policies and the comparative rates of marriage and childbearing in Europe and the United States.

"So-called family-friendly policies give incentives for people to go to work," Gilbert says. "They are actually market-friendly policies," he continues, so they do not necessarily encourage having children. He explains that in some countries, while parents may be paid to stay home for a year with a new child, those parents had to have been working previous to staying home. In most cases, childcare is subsidized, sending parents back to work a short time after a child is born.

"Because these policies are market-friendly, they have devalued caring for children," Gilbert says. "So people think - why have kids?"

The effects of low fertility will have long ranging repercussions on society, the authors believe.

"For example, who is going to care for the elderly?" Gilbert says. "There will not be enough people to support seniors who are no longer in the workforce."
Gilbert also raises the point that low fertility "poses a dramatic threat to cultures. They will either shrink down to nothing, or immigration will increase, which can bring with it a whole new set of issues."

The authors have uncovered some possible solutions that warrant further investigation. For example, Germany has introduced a policy that people without children have to pay higher nursing home premiums, "so the cost of not having children, at least in Germany, has gone up," Gilbert says.

The authors do not see the current practice of the United States government putting money into encouraging marriage as a solution. "What they are doing here is funding counseling," Gilbert says, and there is no evidence that these 'soft' services work.

"We need to examine ways to create more flexibility," Gilbert says. "We need to allow people to make choices." Subsidizing people to stay home with children, as well as providing day care, he says, may give more people incentives to have children.

Adds Gilbert, "We need to recognize the market value of what has been done for free in the past."