How to make babies

Observations on pronatalism

Babies are back in political fashion across Europe. Decades of below-replacement fertility rates have left governments worrying about population decline - and seeking policies to reverse the fall.

In France, the government is celebrating a further increase in the national fertility rate last year - apparently bolstered by policies such as generous child benefits for third children. At 2.0 children per woman, France has overtaken Ireland to have the highest fertility rate in Europe.

In Germany, the family minister Ursula von der Leyen, who has seven children, has warned that the country is in danger of having to "turn the lights out". She recently pushed through reforms which greatly increase maternity payments and extend paternity leave.

Even in traditionally laissez-faire Britain, voices from all sides of the political spectrum are suggesting the government should do more to stimulate the birth rate. The left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and the Tory MP David Willetts have both been busy trying to find ways to make it easier for young couples to have children.

Pro-natal policies have a long and usually dishonourable history. But authoritarian measure such as banning contraception and abortion have been replaced by family-friendly policies that seek to make it easier for parents to combine work and children, along with financial incentives such as tax reductions and childcare benefits.

Yet evidence that pro-natal policies boost birth rates is sketchy. The difference in fertility rates between France, with its explicit pro-natal approach, and the non-interventionist UK is marginal if viewed over 40 years (averaging just 0.01 extra births per woman each year). And while Sweden saw a jump in fertility in the 1980s following the introduction of maternity and paternity rights and universal childcare, by the 1990s birth rates had slipped back down.

The other reason for scepticism relates to the question of which people are not having children. In north-western Europe, it is overwhelmingly educated middle-class couples. In Britain, nearly a third of women with degrees born in the late 1960s and early 1970s are expected to remain childless.

The standard economic explanation for middle-class women having fewer children is that they have better paid jobs and thus stand to lose more if they leave the labour force to have children. However, this may be simplistic: proportionately, less-educated women suffer a far greater loss of earnings than those who have been to university.

There is no simple link, then, between lost earnings and the middle-class reluctance to have children. It may be that the self-worth of educated parents is increasingly dependent on a successful career. It may be that the better-off now choose to maximise their financial (and time) investment in a smaller number of children. But whatever the reason for these current low fertility rates, throwing public money at the middle classes is no solution.

Governments can best create the conditions where people might have more children by making it easier for women to work and by improving the young's access to housing. Such policies can be fully justified in terms of economic efficiency, gender equality and social justice. There are also strong grounds for providing extra help to less wealthy families with children - in terms of helping support a child's educational and social development and improve their life chances. Family fiscal policies should be framed round social justice and educational needs, not those of pronatalism.

Alasdair Murray's "From Boom to Bust? Fertility, ageing and demographic change", is published this month

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover