Do Family Policies Work? Evidence From Europe and the United States

(March 2010) Over the past several decades, the structure of families has changed rapidly in most of the world’s industrialized countries. In addition, some countries—most notably in western Europe and East Asia—are facing declining birth rates and shrinking populations. Family policy has entered the public debate in these countries as they confront the burden of supporting large aging populations and the threat of decreasing production. Frances Goldscheider, professor emerita at Brown University and senior scholar at Child Trends, discussed policies that have had a positive impact on demographic trends in Europe and in the United States at a recent PRB policy seminar. She addressed the key differences in how these regions approach the issue and how public policy has influenced behavior in specific countries.

The Second Demographic Transition, as Goldscheider referred to it, has been characterized by a substantial decline in fertility, with fertility rates falling below the crucial two-child replacement level. Even more striking has been the transformation in marriage and parenthood: declining marriage rates and union commitments, rising divorce rates, growth of nonmarital parenthood, and women and couples waiting longer to have children. Many scholars, including Goldscheider, largely attribute these trends to the gender revolution. They argue that the rise in labor force participation for females has not been met by an equal rise in male involvement in the domestic sphere. The challenge is to design efficient policies to address the negative impacts of the Second Demographic Transition. Historically, public policies have been more successful when they encouraged a desired behavior by making it easier for people to do what they would do anyway—in this case, to have children, raise them in a stable environment, and successfully combine work and family life.

Countries in Europe have responded to falling fertility rates with policies aimed at increasing childbearing. In Austria and Germany, the emphasis is on supporting “traditional families” by providing generous child and infant allowances over long periods (three to four years, in some cases) to compensate women for spending their most productive years away from the labor force. While the original goal of this legislation was to raise fertility, the actual outcome shows that increasing family leave in these countries changed the timing of childbearing, but had little impact on fertility levels. Goldscheider speculated that the reason has to do with a more traditional view of motherhood: “They have relegated children to women for so long, that they are having a difficult time convincing anyone that it [motherhood] is the ‘high status’ route to go.” On the other hand, Sweden and France have been more successful at reversing falling fertility rates. In Sweden especially, the focus has been on supporting parenthood for working families. This includes subsidized quality daycare and job guarantees for parents who take time off to care for their children. In general, work-related support for women has had a positive impact on fertility rates and has made Sweden the place “where family policy lives.”

Fertility is not as much of a policy issue in the United States, and its near replacement-level fertility makes it an outlier among developed countries. Policies in the United States target child well-being and families, especially by encouraging marriage. In particular, during the 1990s and 2000s, the U.S. government invested in the “promotion of marriage.” The results of this funding are still unclear and difficult to measure. The U.S. government also rigorously pursued strengthening the child support system to discourage divorce and shift some of the responsibility of caring for children onto men. The consequences have been clearer in this category: One study found a reduction in teen births and an increase in educational attainment, presumably as a result of increasing young men’s motivation to prevent fatherhood. There is also evidence of the power of the job guarantee for pregnant women in the United States contained in the the Family and Medical Leave Act, which has become an important source of support for balancing family and work.

Kata Fustos is a communications intern at the Population Reference Bureau.