Nov 01 2012
The tools of economics can be applied to almost any social institution, even the decision of individuals in society whether or not to have children. All over the rich world today, potential parents have decided against having babies, the result being lower fertility rates across much of Europe and the richer countries in Asia, including Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Lower fertility rates have some advantages, such as less pressure on the country’s natural resources, but the disadvantages generally outweigh the benefits.
The story below, from NPR, explains in detail some of the consequences of declining fertility rates in the rich world, and identifies some of the ways governments have begun to try to increase the fertility rates.
The problem of declining fertility rates can be analyzed using simple supply and demand analysis. In the graph below, we see that the marginal private cost of having children in rich countries is very high. The costs of having children include not only the monetary costs of raising the child, but the opportunity costs of forgone income of the parent who has to quit his or her job to raise the child or the explicit costs of child care, which in some countries can cost thousands of dollars per month. Marginal private cost corresponds with the supply of babies, since private individuals will only choose to have children if the perceived benefit of having a baby exceeds the explicit and implicit costs of child-rearing.
The marginal private benefit of having babies is downward sloping. This reflects the fact that if parents have just one or two children, the benefit of these children is relatively high, due to the emotional and economic contributions a first and second child will bring to parents’ lives. But the more babies a couple has, the less additional benefit each successive child provides the parents. This helps explain why in an era of increased gender equality, families with three or more children are incredibly rare. The diminishing marginal benefit experienced by individual couples applies to society as a whole as well, therefore the market above could represent either the costs and benefits of individual parents or of society at large.
Notice, however, that that the marginal social benefit of having babies is greater than the marginal private benefit. In economics terminology, there are positive externalities of having babies; in other words, additional children provide benefits to society beyond those emotional and economic benefits enjoyed by the parents. The podcast explained some of these external, social benefits of having children: a larger workforce for firms to employ in the future, more people paying taxes, allowing the government to provide more public goods, more workers supporting the non-working retirees of a nation, and more competitive wages in the global market for goods and services. Higher fertility rates, in short, result in more economic growth and higher incomes for a nation.
When individuals decide how many children to have, they make this decision based solely on their private costs and benefits, since the external benefits of having more babies are enjoyed by society, but not necessarily by the parents themselves. Therefore, left entirely alone, the “free market” will produce fewer babies (Qe) than is socially optimal (Qso).
So what are Western governments doing about low fertility rates? The podcast identifies several strategies being employed to narrow the gap between Qe and Qso. In Australia households receive a $1000 subsidy for each baby born. In Germany mothers receive a year of paid leave from work. Here in Switzerland mothers get three months of government paid leave and $200 a month subsidy to help pay for child care after that. Each of these government policies represents a “baby subsidy”. In the graph above, we can see the intended effect of these policies. By making it more affordable to have children, governments are hoping to reduce the marginal private cost to parents, encouraging them to have more children, which on a societal level should increase the number of babies born so that it is closer to the socially optimal level (Qso).
Unfortunately, as the podcast explains, it appears that parents are relatively unresponsive to the monetary incentives governments are providing. This can be explained by the fact that the private demand (MPB) for babies is highly inelastic. Even if the “cost” of having a baby falls due to government subsidies, parents across the Western world are reluctant to increase the number of babies they have.
As we can see in the graph above, a subsidy for babies reduces the marginal private cost of child-rearing to parents. But the MPB curve, representing the private demand for babies, is highly inelastic, meaning the large subsidy has minimal effect on the quantity of babies produced. Without the subsidy, Qe babies would be born, while with the subsidy only Qs are born, which is closer to the socially optimal number of births at Qso, but still short of the number of births society truly needs.
The “market for babies” in rich countries is failing. Because of the positive externalities of having children, parents are currently under-producing this “merit good”. One of two things must happen to resolve this market failure. Either the marginal private costs of having babies must fall by much more than the government subsidies for babies have allowed, or the marginal private benefit must increase. Either larger subsidies are needed, or some moral revival aimed at encouraging potential parents to consider both the private and social benefits of having children when making their decisions.
- What makes low fertility rates among parents in the rich world an example of a “market failure”?
- What are the primary reasons fertility rates are lower in the rich world than they are in the developing world?
- What are the economic consequences of lower birth rates? What are the environmental consequences of lower birth rates? Should government be trying to increase the number of babies born?
- Why have government incentives for parents to have more babies failed to achieve the fertility rates that government wish they would achieve?
- Do you believe that government can create strong enough incentives for parents to have more babies? If not, what will become of the populations of Western Europe and the rich countries of Asia given today’s low fertility rates? Should we be worried?