Wednesday, October 18, 2006

There's an interesting little Washington Post article (hat tip: Tyler Cowen) about France's relative success in increasing fertility rates, apparently through government subsidies. Note my careful use of "apparently." For all I know, the French fertility rates and child subsidies could both be mostly caused by cultural dynamics.

The bottom line:

French fertility rates are increasing. France now has the second-highest fertility rate in Europe -- 1.94 children born per woman, exceeded slightly by Ireland's rate of 1.99. The U.S. fertility rate is 2.01 children.
Some policies appear straightforward:
During a year-long leave after the birth of the third child, mothers will receive $960 a month from the government, twice the allowance for the second child.
Overpopulation is not remotely a concern for France (or any other Western country); children are a positive externality. Sometimes I think the U.S. would do well to make its income tax credit for a third child higher than that for a first or second child, as opposed to the current flat system. But there's also a good argument that more important are the financial barriers to getting married and having a first child. It seems to me an empirical question which policy is better; I don't know the answer.

Others policies immediately strike me as questionable:

Under French law, a woman can opt not to work or to work part time until her child is 3 years old -- and her full-time job will be guaranteed when she returns.
This law surely makes many employers more reluctant to hire women of childbearing age. I suppose this effect could be cynically intentional: perhaps, given all the other subsidies for French children, making it harder for French women to find work further increases fertility.

Other policies probably subsidize mothers choosing to work as much as they subsidize women choosing to have more children.

Staub, who is married to a lawyer, returned to work in August. Instead of using the government-supported day-care centers, she hired a nanny -- subsidized by tax breaks on part of the nanny's salary -- to care for her 10-month-old twins, Quitterie and Hermine.

When both women's [Staub's and one of her coworker's] twins reach 3 years of age, they will qualify for the free government preschool programs that most French children attend until kindergarten.
At this point, my conservative spider sense is tingling, less about the subsidized nanny than the government preschools. I'm sure the benevolent state just loves three-year olds, but for some strange reason I'd make real sacrifices to keep it away from such young minds, especially when dealing with an education bureaucracy as centralized as France's. At the very least, it would be wise for France to privatize these preschools.

And then my spider sense tingled until it hurt my head:

In the summer, French families can send their children to generous summer camp programs. Government recreation centers in virtually every French village and urban neighborhood offer a full day of activities, including trips to museums, farms and swimming pools -- along with snacks and three-course lunch -- for fees ranging from about 65 cents to $12 a day, based on family income.
It's a very cute communitarianism, but I think the French are selling themselves short. They don't need legislation to force their communities to offer fun family activities. Tocqueville figured this out a long time ago.

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