Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Things Change And Yet Are Not The Same?

Some things have changed in France:
France has overtaken Ireland to become the European nation with the highest birthrate ... taking the fertility rate to two babies per woman for the first time since 1974.... [H]alf the children are born outside marriage. ... The birthrate among immigrants generally matched that of native-born French. ...

Parents are helped by a system of allowances, free daycare and universal nursery schooling, cut-price transport and generous income tax reductions. .... France is on course to become the most populous country in Europe by 2050, overtaking Germany. ... Germany introduced French-style incentives last year for couples to produce children. Its population is expected to drop from today’s 82 million to under 70 million unless women can be encouraged to have more [children].
It would be particularly interesting to see at least one additional bit of statistical breakdown in this data: How does the birthrate of native-born French women whose parents were immigrants to France (especially from Africa) compare to the birthrate of other native-born French women? There is a clear social divide in France between more recent immigrants and their children on the one hand, and other French. The article states that birthrate among immigrants generally matched that of native-born French, which suggests that reproduction pattern of the children of immigrants is not that different from that of other French people, but that conclusion is far from logically compelled.

The article is also rather blasé about its assumption that the increased French birthrate is mostly attributable to government economic incentives. Other estimates place the cost elasticity of the demand for children to be about 0.2 and go on to suggest that politically feasible benefit reforms can change the cost of children by about 25% and move fertility up or down by about 5%. The current French results as reported in this quoted article may be well beyond that 5% range. Italy, for example, has a birth rate of about 1.2 to 1.3, far outside the 5% envelope.

It's interesting to see this assumption that economic incentives profoundly affect reproductive decisions at work without apparent friction, even to the point of possible serious exaggeration, where the similar proposition that the economic effects of the American welfare system dramatically affected the reproductive choices of welfare recipients has long been an incendiary element in American political discussion. Perhaps a measure of that incendiary potential can be seen in the article's demur announcement that "half the children are born outside marriage," with no discussion at all as to whether that figure is also attributable largely to those same government economic incentives. Then there is the possible elephant in the corner that goes completely undiscussed: The likely quality of the additional French children. If one is counting on the new births to help pay for social programs - as the article indicates is happening in France now - it would be a good idea to first determine whether the new children are really going to be making a significant contribution, or whether they will act more like the children of American-style "welfare dependency."

As an interesting aside, Post-World War II French income tax policy was highly unusual and regressive, and was enacted to increase fertility. Most countries provide a fixed income tax deduction for each child. For forty years following WWII, French policy provided a deduction increasing with family size - creating a tax advantage of having children that increased with wealth. That French policy was unique in providing a monetary incentive for fertility that was large and greatest among the rich.

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