I suppose by-now every right thinking and reasonably well read adult knows what the ‘poverty-trap’ is, even if most of us aren’t too clear about what there is to do about it. Being stuck in one of these traps could be thought to be like being stuck in a (not necessarily very deep) well with a slimy surround wall. The more you struggle to get out, the harder it gets: your strength disippates, and the walls get to be even more slippery. This could also be called a negative feedback loop.
Well now there is the suggestion that something similar may exist in the world of fertility. As Wolfgang Lutz suggests in this power point presentation, the critical level may be 1.5. No society which has fallen below this level has -to date – returned above it. (Many thanks here to commenter CapTvK who sent me the link).
One of the details which becomes rapidly apparent viewing the presentation relates to the remarkable differences which exist within the EU in terms of fertility regimes. Basically Northern Europe is by-and-large above the critical threshold, whilst Southern Europe, and Central and Eastern Europe are almost entirely ‘under water’.
Lutz defines the hypothesis, and “attempts an explanation” for the negative feedback component as follows:
How low can fertility fall?
The possible ‘low fertility trap’ hypothesis
- Observation that countries that fell below fertility level of 1.5 children have not recovered.
- Negative demographic momentum: Because of past low fertility there will be fewer potential mothers in the future.
- Economics: Gap between aspirations for consumption and expected income widens for young people due to negative consequences of ageing (cuts in social security systems, possible economic stagnation)
- Ideational change: Young people are socialized in an environment with few children and this may result in lower ideal family size in next generation.
This ‘new reality’ obviously will have some important consequences for policy. Public policy is often spoken of in terms of ‘pillars’. Well one conclusion which might be drawn is (and this now mainly applies to third world ‘developing countries’) that there is an urgent need to construct support pillars to prevent fertility dropping below 1.5 in yet more countries.
Whether this is possible or not will, to some extent, be debated in this session of the international population conference I mentioned yesterday. Unfortunately only one of the promised papers is currently posted, that of Australian Demographer Peter McDonald.
As Mcdonald argues:
“Why is the policy direction changing? Because it must change. Being relaxed and comfortable about very lowbn fertility is fool-hardy and very low fertility does not go away of its own accord. Indeed, without effective action, it consolidates.”
“Countries fall into two groups, those with rates above 1.5 births per woman and those below. 1.5 is an important division because it defines the safety zone for low fertility. Compared to fertility below 1.5, when fertility is above this level:
- The population will age more slowly.
- There will be a continued adequate supply of skilled young workers in future years.
- The age structure will not be marked by inefficient peaks and troughs occurring in rapid succession.
- The population will not be at risk of spiralling downward as a result of negative population momentum, and
- Young people will be able to fulfil their aspirations for family life.
“While the effects of policy may be small, only a small effect is required. We are not trying to produce another baby boom. In combination with a small tempo adjustment, an increase of 0.3 in TFR would lift all countries into the safety zone of low fertility. Hence, an impact at the margin is all that is required.”
It is important to be clear what McDonald, and other like minded demographers, are saying. They are not making the *strong* claim that policy can prevent fertility dropping below the 2.1 self-reproducing level. They are saying that such policies can have an impact on the margin such that they help people avoid falling into the trap. As for those who are already in it, well……… he says, walking away and scratching his head. (Actually McDonald argues, as can be seen above, that such an approach might work, but as we have yet to see one case it is hard to judge. It is also important to bear in mind that since all this has been left so late before tackling, the most affected countries are now under severe ‘liquidity constraints’ relating to what policy can and can’t do).
Apart from the presentation quoted above, Mcdonald has given another relevant paper at the conference, in this session, the paper is entitled “Low fertility and the State” and the abstract runs like this:
“Emergent from the rigid social regime of the male breadwinner model of the family, two waves of social change have subsequently had profound effects upon family formation behaviour. The first wave of change beginning in the 1960s but consolidated in the 1970s was a rapid expansion of social liberalism. The second wave beginning in the 1980s and consolidated in the 1990s was a sharp shift to economic deregulation. Both changes were state-sponsored and both have had substantial effects on the institution of the family in differing cultural and welfare environments. The period has seen the emergence of high rates of relationship breakdown and singleness and very low birth rates that are now posing challenges to social and economic futures. Yet the personal desire for intimacy and individuation through family relationships remains strong. This paper will investigate family policy approaches across varying institutional contexts that can restore the social balance.”
and here’s a highly relevant extended quote:
“Why have countries been slow to take action? Policy action on low fertility has been slow for three reasons. First, in the 1970s and 1980s, low fertility tended to be interpreted by demographers as a temporary phenomenon related to the delay of marriage and childbearing (a so-called tempo effect). Because births were merely delayed, fertility would rise at a later point when the delayed births occurred. This view was confirmed to some extent by rises in fertility in several countries (all the Nordic countries, USA, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) in the latter half of the 1980s. In other countries where fertility had fallen below 1.5 births per woman by the early 1980s (Germany, Austria, Italy), there was a complacency that low fertility would disappear of its own accord as the ?tempo? correction cut in. However, the experience of these countries has been that fertility continued to fall to even lower levels and has remained below 1.5 births per woman for more than 20 years now, almost a demographic generation. They have since been joined by other Southern Europe and by East Asian countries and most Central and Eastern European countries. Waiting for tempo is beginning to look like waiting for Godot. After 20 years of very low fertility, the damage to a country?s age structure has already been done because it is cross-sectional fertility that generates the annual number of births. Consistent with this view, Lutz et al. (2003) have argued that policy action needs to be taken to change the timing of births to earlier ages.”