Leaders | Cash for kids

Why paying women to have more babies won’t work

Economies must adapt to baby busts instead

Baby's bottle filled with coins
image: Alberto Miranda 图片:阿尔贝托-米兰达
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As birth rates plunge, many politicians want to pour money into policies that might lead women to have more babies. Donald Trump has vowed to dish out bonuses if he returns to the White House. In France, where the state already spends 3.5-4% of gdp on family policies each year, Emmanuel Macron wants to “demographically rearm” his country. South Korea is contemplating handouts worth a staggering $70,000 for each baby. Yet all these attempts are likely to fail, because they are built on a misapprehension.
由于出生率急剧下降,许多政客希望将资金投入到可能引导妇女生育更多孩子的政策中。唐纳德-特朗普(Donald Trump)曾发誓,如果他重返白宫,就会发放奖金。在法国,国家每年在家庭政策上的支出已经占到国民生产总值的 3.5-4%,埃马纽埃尔-马克龙(Emmanuel Macron)希望对国家进行 "人口重新武装"。韩国正在考虑为每个婴儿发放价值 7 万美元的补助金。然而,所有这些尝试都有可能失败,因为它们都建立在一个误解之上。

Governments’ concern is understandable. Fertility rates are falling nearly everywhere and the rich world faces a severe shortage of babies. At prevailing birth rates, the average woman in a high-income country today will have just 1.6 children over her lifetime. Every rich country except Israel has a fertility rate beneath the replacement level of 2.1, at which a population is stable without immigration. The decline over the past decade has been faster than demographers expected.
各国政府的担忧是可以理解的。几乎所有地方的生育率都在下降,富裕世界面临着严重的婴儿短缺问题。按照目前的生育率,当今高收入国家的妇女一生平均只需生育 1.6 个孩子。除以色列外,每个富裕国家的生育率都低于 2.1 的更替水平,在更替水平上,如果没有移民,人口将保持稳定。过去十年的下降速度超过了人口学家的预期。

Doomsayers such as Elon Musk warn that these shifts threaten civilisation itself. That is ridiculous, but they will bring profound social and economic changes. A fertility rate of 1.6 means that, without immigration, each generation will be a quarter smaller than the one before it. In 2000 rich countries had 26 over-65-year-olds for every 100 people aged 25-64. By 2050 that is likely to have doubled. The worst-affected places will see even more dramatic change. In South Korea, where the fertility rate is 0.7, the population is projected to fall by 60% by the end of the century.
埃隆-马斯克(Elon Musk)等末日论者警告说,这些转变会威胁到文明本身。这是荒谬的,但它们将带来深刻的社会和经济变革。1.6 的生育率意味着,如果没有移民,每一代人都将比上一代人少四分之一。2000 年,富裕国家每 100 个 25-64 岁的人中就有 26 个 65 岁以上的老人。到 2050 年,这一比例可能会翻一番。受影响最严重的地方将发生更加巨大的变化。在生育率为 0.7 的韩国,预计到本世纪末人口将减少 60%。

The decision to have children is a personal one and should stay that way. But governments need to pay heed to rapid demographic shifts. Ageing and shrinking societies will probably lose dynamism and military might. They will certainly face a budgetary nightmare, as taxpayers struggle to finance the pensions and health care of legions of oldies.

Many pro-natalist policies come with effects that are valuable in themselves. Handouts for poor parents reduce child poverty, for instance, and mothers who can afford child care are more likely to work. However, governments are wrong to think it is within their power to boost fertility rates. For one thing, such policies are founded on a false diagnosis of what has so far caused demographic decline. For another, they could cost more than the problems they are designed to solve.

One common assumption is that falling fertility rates stem from professional women putting off having children. The notion that they run out of time to have as many babies as they wish before their childbearing years draw to a close explains why policies tend to focus on offering tax breaks and subsidised child care. That way, it is argued, women do not have to choose between their family and their career.

That is not the main story. University-educated women are indeed having children later in life, but only a little. In America their average age at the birth of their first child has risen from 28 in 2000 to 30 now. These women are having roughly the same number of children as their peers did a generation ago. This is a little below what they say is their ideal family size, but the gap is no different from what it used to be.
这不是主要情况。受过大学教育的女性确实生育较晚,但只是晚了一点。在美国,她们生育第一个孩子的平均年龄从 2000 年的 28 岁上升到现在的 30 岁。这些女性的生育数量与一代人之前的同龄人大致相同。这比她们所说的理想家庭规模略低,但差距与过去并无不同。

Instead, the bulk of the decline in the fertility rate in rich countries is among younger, poorer women who are delaying when they start to have children, and who therefore have fewer overall. More than half the drop in America’s total fertility rate since 1990 is caused by a collapse in births among women under 19. That is partly because more of them are going to college. But even those who leave education after high school are having children later. In 1994 the average age of a first-time mother without a university degree was 20. Today, about two-thirds of women without degrees in their 20s are yet to have their first child.
相反,富裕国家生育率下降的主要原因是较年轻、较贫穷的妇女推迟了生育时间,因此总生育率较低。自 1990 年以来,美国总和生育率的下降有一半以上是由于 19 岁以下女性生育率的下降造成的。部分原因是她们当中有更多人上了大学。但即使是那些高中毕业后就辍学的女性,她们的生育年龄也在推迟。1994 年,没有大学文凭的初为人母者的平均年龄为 20 岁。如今,在 20 多岁的无学位妇女中,约有三分之二尚未生育第一个孩子。

Some politicians may seize on this to aim baby-boosting policies at very young women. They may be tempted, too, by evidence that poorer women respond more to financial incentives. But focusing on young and poor women as a group would be bad for them and for society. Teenage pregnancies are linked to poverty and ill health for both mother and child. Targeted incentives would roll back decades of efforts to curb unwanted teenage pregnancy and encourage women into study and work. Those efforts, along with programmes to enhance gender equality, rank among the greatest public-policy triumphs of the postwar era.

Some illiberal governments, such as those of Hungary and Russia, may choose to ignore this progress. Yet they face a practical problem, because government incentives do not seem to bring lots of extra babies even as spending mounts. Sweden offers an extraordinarily generous child-care programme, but its total fertility rate is still only 1.7. Vast amounts of money are needed to encourage each extra baby. And handouts tend to go to all babies, including those who would have been born anyway. As a result, schemes in Poland and France cost $1m-2m per extra birth. Only a tiny number of citizens are productive enough to generate fiscal benefits to offset that kind of money. Due to low social mobility only 8% of American children born to parents without bachelor’s degrees end up getting such a degree themselves.
一些不自由的政府,如匈牙利和俄罗斯政府,可能会选择无视这一进步。然而,他们面临着一个实际问题,因为即使支出增加,政府的激励措施似乎也不会带来大量额外的婴儿。瑞典提供了极为慷慨的儿童保育计划,但其总和生育率仍然只有 1.7。每多生一个孩子都需要大量资金。而且所有婴儿,包括那些无论如何都会出生的婴儿,往往都会得到施舍。因此,在波兰和法国,每多生一个孩子就要花费 100 万至 200 万美元。只有极少数公民的生产力足以产生抵消这笔费用的财政收益。由于社会流动性低,在父母没有学士学位的美国儿童中,只有 8%的人最终获得了学士学位。

Older, but wiser  更老,但更智慧

What, then, can governments do? High-skilled immigration can plug fiscal gaps, but not indefinitely, given that fertility is falling globally. Most economies will therefore have to adapt to social change, and it falls to governments to smooth the way. Welfare states will need rethinking: older people will have to work later in life, for instance, to cut the burden on the public purse. The invention and adoption of new technologies will need to be encouraged. These could make the demographic transition easier by unleashing economy-wide productivity growth or helping care for the old. New household technologies may help parents, rather as dishwashers and washing machines did in the mid-20th century. Baby-boosting policies, by comparison, are a costly and socially retrograde mistake.
那么,政府可以做些什么呢?高技能移民可以弥补财政缺口,但不是无限期的,因为全球生育率都在下降。因此,大多数经济体都必须适应社会变革,而政府则有责任为社会变革铺平道路。福利国家需要重新思考:例如,老年人必须在晚年工作,以减轻公共财政的负担。需要鼓励发明和采用新技术。这些技术可以使整个经济的生产率增长或帮助照顾老人,从而使人口结构的转型变得更加容易。新的家用技术可以帮助父母,就像洗碗机和洗衣机在 20 世纪中期所做的那样。相比之下,促进婴儿成长的政策是一个代价高昂、社会倒退的错误。■

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This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Cash for kids”
本文以 "为孩子们提供现金 "为题刊登在印刷版的《领袖》版上

Cash for kids: Why policies to boost birth rates don’t work

From the May 25th 2024 edition
摘自 2024 年 5 月 25 日版

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