Your editorial of July 19, 2023 Boost birth rates for Barbados’ future. Pay Mummy, asserts that “payments to mothers as a means of boosting our sagging birth rate and slowing down the aging of our population has precedent and proof”.
While there is precedent, proof is harder to come by.
The chart below shows the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of all the countries cited in the editorial compared to Barbados’. The data is from the United Nations Population Division. (See chart)
At 1.63 children per woman Barbados has the highest TFR of the lot. Perhaps they should be studying us rather than us emulating them.
The nations cited as proof of a solution in the editorial are amongst many who have thrown a great deal more than payments at mothers (and fathers) to thaw their demographic winters. South Korea, for example, is probably the champion in this regard: it has reportedly spent $200bn in 16 years on a raft of incentives to boost fertility. Yet it currently has the world’s lowest TFR of 0.88.
More recent, highly-coordinated pro-natal efforts of the “holistic” design desired in the editorial include Hungary and Poland. Their results to date – TFRs of 1.58 and 1.47 respectively – are consistent with a 2020 review of 34 post-2000 academic studies by a Research Fellow of the Institute for Family Studies. The results showed that an increase in the present value of child benefits equal to ten per cent of a household’s income can be expected to produce between 0.5 per cent and 4.1 per cent higher birth rates as a short-term effect.
In other words, the bulk of available research suggests pro-natal policies are more likely to temporarily slow medium and long-term declines in TFRs rather than reverse them – and at a substantial cost to the public purse.
Moreover, and despite a large body of research, it is very hard to disentangle and identify statistically valid causal effects between family policy, cash and non-cash incentives, female employment and fertility rates. Simply put, there is a reliance on luck in efforts to directly target TFRs.
There are two other, often overlooked, factors in fertility debates – culture and historical experience. Context is critical and the contrasting fortunes in fertility of France, the high income nation TFR champion (1.78) and South Korea (0.88) demonstrates this. France has far better aligned its family policies over the last 60 years to recognise societal norms, expectations and economic realities. But its main objective in that time was to elevate its women to equal status with its men – and in that its policies have been highly effective. It is tempting to conclude that its TFR performance is somewhat of a by-product, a Love Child.
The editorial aims to “support and incentivise Bajan motherhood.” But the goal has, surely, to be more nuanced and place the equality of genders at its heart. That is what the experience of others suggests above all, when it comes to protecting our own TFR.