Making Babies

February 18, 2009

An article in the January 19th edition of the New Yorker about the history of breastfeeding and the recent trend to accommodate breast-feeding women in the workplace was sent to me by a friend.  She and I later traded comments about how much maternity leave each of us had received: she lives in San Francisco and had 12 weeks of leave at 60% pay for her first baby, and only 6 weeks at 60% pay for her second baby.  I live in London and had 6 months of leave – 3 at full pay, 3 at half pay – and the rights for an additional 6 months of state maternity leave (which is about $300 a month), which I did not take.

American women who take less maternity leave, and work until the day they give birth, are applauded rather than looked at with skepticism: Sarah Palin was given big plaudits for coming right back to work after her little one was born, and the representative taking Hillary Clinton’s New York Senate seat, Kirsten Gillibrand, got a standing ovation by her colleagues on the House floor for working up the day her second child was born. The point that the New Yorker article was making is that having corporate policies which allow women to comfortably pump breast milk during the working day is not the same thing as having pro-family policies.

Thus I got all worked up this morning when I read a letter in this week’s New Yorker responding to the article.  The author of the letter stated: “Six to twelve months of maternity leave per child would be a personal, professional, and economic disaster for plenty of women and families.  It is worth noting that the countries that have these types of policies also tend toward abysmally low birth rates.”

Au contraire, dear Jill Foley from Princeton, N.J.  The first sentence just seemed to me silly, and not at all consistent with my experience or that of others.  Ms. Foley states that “The ability to economically support myself and my family, to contribute to society by pursuing the discipline that I studied for more than a decade to become qualified to practice…are all opportunities that I heartily thank the women’s movement for.”  But why must a woman go back to work within 6 weeks of giving birth to “contribute to society” and support their families?  I too studied for nearly a decade, and going back to work after 6 months presented me no problems as my organisation was happy to have me out for that period of time to spend some important months with N.

But the thing that bothered me more about Ms. Foley’s letter was the second sentence, which is empirically false.  Research has demonstrated that low birth rates are the result of a bad combination of policies.  In countries where state support for maternity and childcare are high (like in Scandinavia), people have more babies.  In countries where the job market is flexible and women can leave and re-enter the workforce relatively easily (e.g. the UK and US), birth rates are also high, regardless of state provision of pro-family policies.  Birth rates are low are in places where state provision is insufficient and the market for work is not flexible – e.g. Italy and other parts of Southern Europe.

So Ms. Foley is wrong.  It it not worth noting that countries that provide their female employees with six to twelve months of maternity leave have abysmal birth rates.  It is worth noting that some countries have a bad mix of policies, which is contributing to their very low birth rates.  Presumably increasing maternity and childcare benefits in the US would have no impact on the birth rate unless the move was coupled with a de-flexibilisation of the workforce.

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3 Responses to “Making Babies”

  1. Mark said

    Especially the second-to-last paragraph is worth emphasizing. Quebec has been conducting a real-life experiment for a few years now when the province introduced generous maternity benefits of up to 40 weeks at 70% of pay (and importantly for me, six weeks of paternity leave at 75%). Labour markets
    are relatively inflexible here, although not as much as in Italy or Spain. Since the introduction of the new policy, the previously very low birth rate has grown by 7-8% a year and has still not reached a plateau. This basically rules out country-specific effects as explanation of the differences in birth rates, and brings it just down to policy.

    (And by way of introduction, all the best from Montreal from a future colleague.)

  2. LMP said

    Mark: Nice to “meet” you and thanks for the empirical evidence from Quebec. The paternity leave provisions there sound great. As you probably already know, here in the UK it’s limited to 2 weeks…

  3. […] reminded me of a post I wrote on my previous blog, where I discussed findings about the factors that drive variation in birth rates across countries, […]

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