Believers, Skeptics, and Disbelievers
These findings lend themselves to at least three broad interpretations, representing those who believe in the salutary effects of family-friendly policies, those who are skeptical, and those who disbelieve. It is clear that increased family-friendly provisions have not reversed whatever forces—economic, normative, social/psychological—are driving fertility rates down to below replacement levels. Believers would argue, however, that although such policies do not appear to strengthen the formation of family life (by increasing the presence of children and marriage), without these benefits the declines would have been even sharper—that is, they believe these benefits acted as a brake to slow things down. As evidence, they might point to the positive correlations between fertility rates and public expenditure on family benefits that were found in Scandinavian countries where levels of expenditure were proportionately more than twice as high as in most other OECD countries.
Although fertility rates remain below the replacement level, the Scandinavian experience suggests that the decline can be diminished if significant resources are invested in family services. On the issue of whether family policies are a remedy to low fertility rates in European countries, Gerda Neyer concludes, “Countries which regard their family policies as part of labor-market policies, of care policies, and of gender policies, seem to have retained fertility above the lowest-low levels. They use strategies directed at changing the labor market so that both men and women are able to maintain employment and income, even if they have (small) children to care for.”58
But if these policies serve as a brake on declining rates of fertility, one would expect to find the lowest fertility rates in countries that lag behind in the provision of family-friendly benefits—the United States being a prime example. In comparison to the comprehensive package of public supports to reconcile work and family responsibilities in European countries, the pervasive view is that “American public policy leaves the vast majority of working parents high and dry.”59 So what accounts for the curiously high fertility rate in the United States? It is not the result of elevated birthrates among immigrants and minorities. Although higher birthrates in these groups account for part of the fertility gap between the United States and Europe, in 2004 the total fertility rate of the nonHispanic white majority in the United States was 1.85—well above the rate of all the European Union countries, except Ire-
land and France (and part of the high rate in France is attributed to their large Muslim population).
Instead, some believers have claimed that as in Scandinavian countries, conditions in the United States (such as a flexible job market and the availability of child care) actually minimize the incompatibility between the childrearing demands of motherhood and paid employment for women— appearances notwithstanding. The flexible nature of the U. S. job market is seen as highly conducive to combining work and family life by affording schedules that permit dual-earner couples to stagger their working hours so that at least one of them can be at home at any given time.60 This explanation of the U. S. experience would strike many family-policy researchers as a bit of a stretch, since they rarely find the American business community all that responsive to the needs of working mothers. Janet Gornick and Marcia Meyers claim, for example, that working conditions in the United States are less family friendly than in Europe because U. S. workers are more likely to encounter choices “between forty-hour-a-week employment and no employment or between mandatory overtime and losing their jobs.”61 Joan Williams argues persuasively that women are held to the male model of the “ideal worker,” whose schedule sanctions no compromise with family demands.62 Still, there are indications of a market response to the increased proportion of employed mothers as some workplaces institute more flexible work hours and expand the scope of paid sick leave to include children’s illnesses.63
In terms of nonmaternal day care, believers contend that while public provision is relatively limited, “the United States provides an example of business and voluntary organizations increasing the availability of child care.”64 Day care is seen as more acceptable in the United States than in countries with lower fertility rates; for example, according to surveys, Germans agreed more frequently than Americans with the idea that children suffer if their mothers go to work. The believer reasons that the relatively high U. S. fertility rates “must lie in the responsiveness of nongovernmental institutions,” which reinforces the idea that, whether public or private, day care and other family-friendly arrangements significantly influence childbearing decisions.65
Invoking the mantra “Correlation is not causality,” skeptics find little reason to assume that these policies are either friendly or unfriendly to families and read the results as confirming that family-friendly policies make no palpable difference. The two-variable equation of family policy and fertility excludes many relevant factors, such as employment rates, cultural traditions, and cohabitation. Scandinavian countries with comparatively high fertility rates also have the highest level cohabitation in the European Union—some researchers have found a relationship between cohabitation and fertility rates.66 In addition, the resources of the extended family do not enter the formal accounting of family-policy expenditures. In Italy and Greece, more than 25 percent of grandparents age fifty and over are engaged in providing free child care for four hours or more a day.67
Skeptics would no doubt recall the history of children’s allowances in France, which were initiated under the Family Code of 1939 with explicit pro-natalist objectives. Although the French birthrate increased considerably in the decades after World War II, the birthrate in the United States—which had no children’s allowance—also rose dramatically during the same period, while the birthrate in Sweden declined despite its allowance system.68 As for more recent empirical evidence, skeptics would concur with Joelle Sleebos’s assessment that the findings from forty-two multivariate studies on family-friendly policies are often inconclusive and contradictory. The current state of knowledge about the impact of these policies is too limited to guide effective public intervention.69
Skeptics reason that decisions concerning marriage and family size address fundamental values of human existence, which do not yield readily to social policy. Thus, they would argue that while no single factor is definitive, the differences in support for traditional values and beliefs has a significant bearing on the gap in fertility rates between the United States and Europe. Data comparing religious values in Europe and the United States showed that Americans were almost three times as likely to say that God was very important in their lives and twice as likely to participate in religious activity as the average person in the fourteen European countries surveyed. In addition, 59 percent of U. S. respondents attended religious service at least once a month in contrast to 10 percent in Sweden, 13 percent in Norway, and 17 percent in France. These striking differences convey a palpable sense of the extent to which people in the United States hold more traditional values and beliefs than typical Europeans (see Appendix, Table 2).70
A one-variable explanation, however, rarely captures the full range of complex interactions that account for people’s decisions to bring children into the world—even when the variable is as powerful as the influence of religious belief. Although Ireland and the United States registered the highest support for religious values and had among the highest fertility rates, Italy came in third just behind them on support for religious values yet had one of the lowest fertility rates in Europe.71
Finally, in contrast to both believers and skeptics, disbelievers conclude that so-called family-friendly policies are not really family friendly at all. Rather, they argue that although the historical patterns that show female labor-force participation and expenditures on family benefits rising as fertility and marriage rates decline do not represent definitive explanations, they are indicative of two firm underlying realities.
First, for the vast majority of people there is no way to “harmonize” the demands of working at a full-time job, raising children, and managing a household. “Harmony” is a euphemism for surviving the pandemonium of daily life under those circumstances. As any woman who has tried it can testify, efforts to balance paid work and family life demand extraordinary physical exertion and personal sacrifice during the early childhood years. Caring for young children is immensely labor intensive and relentless. Most who do it survive, but under the best of circumstances—high-quality day care, low – keyed children, and a helpful partner—few engaged in the struggle would characterize the life of a working mother with young children as harmonious.
A two-earner family with two children under five years of age hits the ground running just before sunrise. The kids have to be washed, fed, dressed, and herded out the door in time to get to the day-care center well before the parents are due at their jobs. At 5:00 p. m., the parents leave work, rush to pick up the kids, and take them home to be fed, undressed, bathed, and put to bed. This tight daily routine can be further squeezed by jobs that require evening meetings, out-of-town travel, overtime, and take-home work. On top of that, parents must find time for grocery shopping, buying children’s clothes, housecleaning, doing laundry, going to doctor appointments, and getting haircuts—in addition to coping with pinkeye, strep throat, and ear infections that regularly strike without warning. It does not take much for things to spin out of control: a dead car battery, a broken washing machine, or a leaky roof will do it.
Although many men have increased their involvement in domestic life, whether due to nature or nurture they still do far less than their fair share of traditional female duties. The hard reality is that most working mothers continue to assume the brunt of household and child-care responsibilities. Even if, as some feminists wish, this were to change drastically so that fathers shouldered a full 50 percent of the domestic chores and childrearing duties, family life would still be no picnic. Some people manage it better than others. Those who do it best usually have high energy, a lot of money, and some spry grandparents nearby to lend a hand. For everyone else, no matter how fairly the work is divided, the normal obligations of two full-time work careers and two children under five years old leave little time or space in which to harmonize the daily rhythms of life. And despite all the working mother’s efforts, at the end of each week her young children will have spent the majority of their waking hours having their physical needs met and their personalities shaped by strangers.
The second reality is that the main threads of family – friendly policies are tied to and reinforce female labor-force participation—a more apt label would be “market friendly.” Since the late 1990s, as Jane Lewis explains, family policy in the European Union “has been explicitly linked to the promotion of women’s employment in order to further the economic growth and competition agenda.”72 These work-oriented policies are largely, though not entirely, associated with publicly provided care for children and supports for periods of parental leave. To qualify for parental-leave benefits it is necessary to have a job before having children. The incentive for early attachment to the labor force is bolstered by publicly subsidized day care. Child-care services both compensate for the absence of parental child care in families with working mothers and generate an economic spur for mothers to shift their labor from the home to the market. In Sweden, for example, free day-care services are state-subsidized by as much as $11,900 per child.73 They are free at the point of consumption but paid for dearly by direct and indirect taxes. In 1990, Swedish taxes absorbed the highest proportion of the gross domestic product of any OECD country. Paying in advance for the “free” day-care service tends to squeeze mothers into the labor force, since the crushing tax rates make it difficult for an average family to get by on a single salary.
As noted earlier, most of the employed Swedish women end up working in the public sector. By Patricia Morgan’s reckoning, not only are women’s employment opportunities in Sweden less equal than those of women in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, but Sweden “is more gender-segregated than Asian countries like China, Hong Kong and India.”74 In Scandinavia the traditional women’s work of socializing children and caring for the sick is still done by women, but it is now performed for a government wage rather than for the intimate and sympathetic commitments of family life. Alan Wolfe discerns that “the Scandinavian welfare states which express so well a sense of obligation to distant strangers, are beginning to make it more difficult to express a sense of obligation to those with whom one shares family ties.”75 Still in all fairness, as David Popenoe argues, “in a strict comparison, Scandinavia is probably preferable to the United States today as a place to raise young children.”76 Not only is Sweden more culturally homogenous, it also is a less individualistic and consumer-oriented society than the United States. And almost all
Swedish mothers are subsidized to stay at home with their infants for the first year.
The disbeliever argues that for many people, if not most, the quality of family life suffers when mothers with young children go to work; hence, policies that create incentives to shift informal labor invested in child care and domestic production to the realm of paid employment are not “family friendly” in a universal sense. From this perspective, there is a meaningful connection between the decline in marriage and fertility and the increased investments in family benefits in recent decades.
Seen in the context of women’s diverse interests in work and family life, each of the interpretations outlined above frames a slice of reality; that is, the consequences of family – friendly policies vary in strength and direction for women with different lifestyle preferences. The skeptic is correct in the sense that these policies probably have little effect on women at the two ends of the work-family continuum—those who prefer the traditional and postmodern lifestyles. Just as the availability of subsidized child-care services is unlikely to redirect those postmodern women who are firmly dedicated to a professional career and really not interested in having children, it is doubtful that most traditional women disposed toward rearing three or more children would be seriously influenced by the prospect of having their children cared for on a daily basis by other people.
Although there is some elasticity within each lifestyle category, the largest potential for movement is among the neotraditional and modern lifestyles of those women somewhere in the middle of the continuum. On one hand, the believer probably has a point in that child care and other family benefits facilitate the lifestyle objectives of some women in the modern group—those who want a child but are work oriented and inclined to limit family size. In the absence of family benefits, the increased difficulty of rearing children while actively pursuing a career might have a dampening effect on fertility and marriage rates among these women—some of whom might move into the postmodern lifestyle. On the other hand, the disbeliever’s view that most family-friendly policies undermine the institution they are purported to support probably resonates with some women in the neotraditional group for whom work is secondary to child care. In the absence of family benefits that create incentives to work and lend impetus to the normative devaluation of childrearing and the domestic arts, fertility rates might rise as some women disposed toward a neotraditional lifestyle gravitated into the traditional category.
It is fair to say that family policies can be friendlier to some lifestyles than to others—they support the personal interests and psychological ambitions of some, but not all, women. Recognition of this diversity underscores the social obligation of policy makers to explore alternatives to the conventional package of public benefits that are supposed to help women balance work and family life.