Jennifer Senior’s very interesting piece for New York on parenting — on how having children tends to make people less happy — is getting lots of attention. Some of that attention, coming from the usual suspects, is for all of the wrong reasons. The key paragraph setting astir the hearts of those who see us all as milking cows for the sustenance of their favorite social policies is below:
One hates to invoke Scandinavia in stories about child-rearing, but it can’t be an accident that the one superbly designed study that said, unambiguously, that having kids makes you happier was done with Danish subjects. The researcher, Hans-Peter Kohler, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says he originally studied this question because he was intrigued by the declining fertility rates in Europe. One of the things he noticed is that countries with stronger welfare systems produce more children–and happier parents.
This isn’t that surprising a finding, of course, for anybody who has ever been stuck with the check for dinner. More than a few of our friends and neighbors take great pleasure in ducking the tab for their indulgences (and yes, children are an indulgence — “economically worthless but emotionally priceless” as a sociologist pithily describes them in the article). Along those lines, were I of a more-parasitic mindset, I’m sure I would take much greater joy in a new truck if I could send you the tab instead of shouldering monthly payments.
But sending somebody else the bill doesn’t change the fact that there’s a bill. And the bill for subsidizing basic activities like child-rearing might well prove pretty hefty — especially if times turn tough and belts need tightening.
As it turns out, Denmark, the land of those happy, subsidized parents, is broke. Well, broke-ish, in European terms, since the continent is a financial mess (like the dear old U.S.A., but with fewer credit cards hidden in the desk drawer). In fact, Denmark has instituted fairly serious budget cuts in an effort to reduce the government’s growing deficit. And yes, those parenting subsidies are included — with cuts amounting to 5% across the board. (Ireland is among the countries making similar cuts.)
And if Danish parents have been pleased to have somebody else foot the bill, the subsidies haven’t necessarily made them more fecund, even though in-vitro treatments have also been subsidized (and, now, cut). The fertility rate hovers somewhere between 1.8 and 1.9, raising questions about the article’s claim that “countries with stronger welfare systems produce more children.” With the replacement rate at 2.1, Danish parents are happier, but fewer with every passing year. (Americans are breeding at just about exactly the replacement rate, mournful though they may be over the burdens of parenthood.)
Basically, the payoff to subsidizing parents doesn’t seem to extend beyond the fact that many parents like being subsidized.