When a baby is conceived there are usually three parties involved, and one of them is the government. Without financial and other kinds of support from the state, people are more reluctant to have children, according to official statistics. In the UK, the birth rate clearly tracks government support for parents. During the 1990s, the birth rate fell despite rapid GDP growth.
More important were austerity measures brought in by John Major, which the incoming Blair government maintained in its first two years in office. From 2001, the birth rate jumped – not, as many might believe, following a change in immigration policy. Live births to British-born parents were also rising from the beginning of the century, hitting a modern-day peak in 2006-07. The same trend was seen in France, which, like Britain, passed legislation across a wide range of policy areas to support families, and importantly without much judgment about what “family” meant.
Over the same period, governments in Germany, Italy and Japan saw birth rates fall as they stuck with a more traditional outlook on family life. Even Sweden, a 1980s pioneer of gender equality and state support for family life, has taken a more conservative path of late. That’s not to say economics doesn’t matter. They undermined the confidence of middle- and low-income families, most of whom are supported by the state in some way, in the affordability of having children.
Universal credit was designed by former welfare minister Iain Duncan Smith to enhance support for families, even if it wasn’t going to be as generous as New Labour’s welfare reforms. But a string of austerity budgets have meant that it is more limited in scope and less generous than planned. As it is rolled out, the picture emerges of a British state slowly withdrawing from family support. Since 2007-08, Britain’s birth rate has tumbled, and with austerity set to extend under Tory governments until the mid-2020s, Brexit or no Brexit, there is no end in sight.
Countries with spare cash have attempted to reverse the slide. About three years ago, Germany began to throw serious amounts of money at family support and childcare. Maybe it is early days, but it has had only a marginal effect. The old, of course, have only themselves to blame.
In Britain, as elsewhere, one of the emerging barriers is an ageing population that needs extra care. If parents are left to look after the old as well as the young, it is clear they will seek to limit their responsibilities to both. They voted in their hordes for Tory administrations to maintain austerity, and then wonder why social care means virtually no care at all.
Successive governments have sponsored reports into ways of privately funding social care. This, too, was deemed an injustice by older voters. Yet there is no better way to support family life and the lives of an older generation that is increasingly infirm than by sharing what income and wealth we have.
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