Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A false allegiance

There was yet another article in The Age yesterday by a feminist academic writing about family and fertility.

This one, though, turned out to be a bit different. Usually, feminists argue that the reason there aren't enough babies is that women want to do paid work and they won't have babies unless governments provide more childcare places and paid maternity leave.

Dr Ceridwen Spark, though, took a different line. She wants it to be possible for women to care for their own children at home. She confesses that she feels ill when it comes time for her daughter to go to childcare and she admits also that her career is not the most important thing in her life. She herself puts this as follows:

Despite being a feminist who loves working part-time, it is not my career that concerns me primarily. Like more and more people in Australia, I am part of the slow-turning tide against the idea that work provides answers to the meaning of life.

What solutions does Dr Spark propose? In part, she wants better funded and therefore higher quality childcare, which is hardly a radical proposal for a feminist to make.

However, she does go beyond this to suggest that parents be given "a real choice between working full-time and not working at all". She proposes that parents be allowed to choose between "a decent parenting allowance and a child-care place".

Now, it's encouraging to find a feminist who really does believe that women should have the option of staying home to look after their children. However, there is a major flaw in Dr Spark's arguments.

Throughout her article, Dr Spark refers to France and Sweden in glowing terms. She calls them "our enlightened friends across the globe" and she asserts that,

In Sweden and France they don't just profess to care about families and fertility. They actually legislate to improve family life and, as Leslie Cannold and Anne Manne have pointed out in their recent books, women have voted with their ovaries and begun to have more children.

It should be said that it's not surprising for an Australian academic to build up the image of France and Sweden in this way. These are the leading social democratic (left-liberal) countries, and academics generally support the left.

But there are two major problems with Dr Spark's claims about Sweden and France. First, what she writes about the birth rates in these countries is factually wrong. The US has a birth rate of 14.5 per 1000 women. France has only 12.8 (only slightly higher than Australia on 12.3) and Sweden has only 10.3, well below the Australian birth rate.

As it happens, the French and Swedish birth rates have fallen over the last 25 years. The birth rate for France between 1975-1980 was 14 compared to 12.8 between 2000-2005, and Sweden's was 11.7 compared to 10.3. So we should not be seeking to follow French and Swedish family policies in the hopes of increasing our birth rate.

Furthermore, the family policies enacted in France and Sweden make it more difficult, not less, for women to opt out of the workforce. The high levels of taxation necessary to pay for Sweden's social programmes means that two incomes are necessary to support a family. So while it's true that women get a period of paid maternity leave, few women are wealthy enough to stay home after the period of leave is over.

It should also be said that the social democratic model, by making the state a provider rather than the family, has led to a faster and more extensive breakdown in family life in Sweden than elsewhere (low rates of marriage and high rates of divorce). How can you praise Swedish family policies when Sweden has managed in some years to suffer a 60% divorce rate?

So whilst it's encouraging that Dr Spark wants women to have the choice to be full-time mothers, she is wrong to place her faith in the family policies of the European social democratic countries, especially those of Sweden, which has such a dismal record for low birth rates, poor family formation, high levels of divorce and excessive taxation.

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