The ladies aren’t having enough babies and conservatives are sad. That was basically the gist of Ross Douthat’s column this weekend, which riffed off of new birthrate numbers from Pew showing that we’re at a record low. Douthat’s primary concern seems to be the false notion that demography is destiny—that our “demographic edge” means we can pwn all fellow nations and without it, a more fruitful nation is eating our lunch. (If this were true, Niger, which has the world’s highest birthrate, would have enslaved us all. We clock in at a meager 124.) But there is good reason for conservatives and progressives alike to be concerned about a falling birthrate. Many of our public policies, most notably the social safety net, are designed to have one generation support the older one—but that gets mighty top heavy with a declining number of people doing the supporting. As Douthat puts it, “Today’s babies are tomorrow’s taxpayers and workers and entrepreneurs.” That’s real. Nancy Folbre even calculates that a parent who raises a child contributes $200,000 more to net taxes than a nonparent, given what that child will pay when it grows up.
So what can we do about bringing that rate up? Douthat goes off the rails when attributing the decline in births to a cultural “decadence” in which women can’t get beyond themselves to think about the future. But what’s exciting about Douthat’s column is that parts of it expose a place of common interest between liberals and conservatives that could further the feminist project of implementing real work/family policies in America.
After all, Douthat admits: “America has no real family policy to speak of at the moment.” While it feels like quite the understatement, he’s absolutely right. In a previous column he even recognized that “our policies and our institutions are increasingly out of date: they’re built for a world in which two-parent, single-breadwinner families were a near-universal norm, and they don’t take enough account of the mass entrance of women into the work force, or the mounting economic pressures on the American family.”
So now that we’re all in agreement that some government intervention is needed, where can we look for guidance? Douthat himself points across the pond, naming Sweden and France as places that have had success in bringing up their birthrates through public policy. But he can’t quite bring himself to spell out what that policy actually looks like.
Let’s take a close look at France’s example. Claire Lundberg, currently living in that country, wrote a dispatch for Slate outlining the entirety of France’s childcare policies. She explains, “In brief, the French government provides: 1) inexpensive municipal daycare, 2) tax breaks for families employing in-home child care workers, and 3) universal free preschool beginning at age 3.” It’s really a remarkable system. First, parents can enroll their children in a crèche, a government-run day care center that takes children starting at three months, is open during the entire work day and adheres to high standards set by the government in which at least half of the workers are required to have a specialized diploma. The cost is rock bottom: it’s on a sliding scale based on income, costing just .26 euros an hour for the poorest families.
But what about the families who don’t want to use a center? For them, the French government has a system of tax breaks for parents who hire a licensed nanny overseen by the government or another childcare worker. The rebates “often amount to about one-third of the total cost of care,” Lundberg reports.
Once the kids reach age 3, they are guaranteed a place in the country’s universal preschool system, which is open from 8:30-4:30 but often also offers daycare service afterward. While it’s not mandatory, the high quality and low cost mean that over 95 percent of eligible children attend.