This paper examines the theoretical propositions and empirical evidence linking policies and fertility. More specifically, the analysis presented in this paper draws attention to the complex mechanisms that theoretically link policies and demographic outcomes: mechanisms that involve imperfect information and decisions that are rationally bound by very specific circumstances. As to the empirical evidence, studies provide mixed conclusions as to the effect of policies on fertility. While a small positive effect of policies on fertility is found in numerous studies, no statistically significant effect is found in others. Moreover, some studies suggest that the effect of policies tends to be on the timing of births rather than on completed fertility.
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I use the term family policies to encompass these different types of policies. However, one should bear in mind that very few countries have in place an explicit and comprehensive family policy. Instead, the responsibility for these various policies tends to be scattered across various ministries or departments.
From the onset, the economic theory of fertility has also been criticized for its consumerist view of children. The discussion of this aspect of the theory is beyond the scope of the paper. For more information, see Blake (1968).
The model is unclear with regard to the actual sequencing of events. In the above case it could be argued that the individual had a first child knowing that by becoming parent he/she would start receiving child benefits. Alternatively, it could be argued that once the individual has a child and is receiving benefits, he/she could decide to have a second child because he/she is already receiving benefits.
Goldthorpe (2000) does not raise the issue of imperfect information in the context of fertility decision. His argument applies generally to rational action theory.
In the case of teenagers, this may mean that having a child may be a rational decision, not in economic terms, but because it provides the teenage mother with a sense of personal worth and responsibilities, and may provide her with a higher status in her immediate neighborhood. This appears to be the case in some deprived communities. For example, the high teenage pregnancy rate in remote communities of Northern Canada has been linked with the perceived elevated social status of being a mother (George 2000).
It should be noted that numerous studies on the impact of policies on fertility do not discuss in detail their theoretical model and underlying mechanisms. Some of the complex mechanisms described above may account for some of the unexpected findings.
For example, such an argument has been used in Japan to explain the gap between ideal and actual number of children (Japan Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare 1999). The gap between ideal and actual number of children was also noted in Switzerland although without reference to policies (Switzerland Statistics 1997).
Aware of the measurement biases associated with the use of fertility ideals, the data used by Goldstein et al. (2003) attempted at better distinguishing between perceived societal ideals and the respondents’ own personal ideals.
For a discussion of policy acceptance and their potential impact on fertility, see also Palomba et al. (1989).
Results from the second round of the Population Policy Acceptance Survey (PPA2) in Slovenia suggest a potentially larger impact of policies. However authors such as Stropnik (2001) have been critical of these results arguing that the hypothetical nature of the questions on policies make them an unreliable source of information to capture their potential effect on policies.
The analysis was based on 17 OECD countries but excluded Austria, New Zealand, and the USA. While the reasons for excluding these three countries are unclear in the study, it is clear that their inclusion would have considerably altered (i.e., weakened) the correlation between fertility and policies.
There is a large literature (mainly American) on the impact of means-tested benefits on teenage fertility, births outside wedlock, and births by welfare recipient mothers. I am not covering this subtopic here. Interested readers are referred to Duncan and Hoffman (1990), Plotnick (1990), Tanisha Dyer and Fairlie (2005) and Joyce et al. (2005) for more information.
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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the ESF/EURESCO conference “The Second Demographic Transition in Europe” (Bad Herrenalb, Germany, 23–28 June 2001) while a condensed version was presented as part of a plenary debate at the IUSSP conference (Tours July 2005). I am grateful to the participants of these conferences for their comments and to the anonymous referees of this journal. Finally, many thanks to my research assistants, Monetta Bailey and Alyssa Borkosky, for their help in searching and reviewing the literature.
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Gauthier, A.H. The impact of family policies on fertility in industrialized countries: a review of the literature. Popul Res Policy Rev 26, 323–346 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11113-007-9033-x
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