Last week, the New York Times ran a piece on the dire demographic problems facing Germany. The short version: Germans aren’t having enough kids, and as a result the economy is in trouble and there are all sorts of logistical problems—vacant buildings that need to be razed; houses that will never be sold, sewer systems which may not function properly because they’re too empty. If you want to read the long version, I write pretty extensively about Germany’s problems in What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. (Now available in hardcover, Kindle, and audiobook!)

The Times piece reaches a couple interesting conclusions. The first is that they, somewhat surprisingly, acknowledge how much trouble demographic decline represents. This is surprising not because it’s news—most economists believe, and much of the historical record suggests, that aging, declining populations are problematic. No, it’s surprising because the Times is normally one of the last bastions of the neo-Malthusian idea that small is beautiful and that shrinking populations will be good for everyone. Because, you know, this time will be different. Maybe the reporters behind the Times’s Germany story are just conservative moles.

But probably not, because the second conclusion of the piece is that what Germany needs to do is stop trying to prod families with handouts and start focusing on helping working mothers:

There is a band of fertility in Europe, stretching from France to Britain and the Scandinavian countries, helped along by immigrants and social services that support working women.

Raising fertility levels in Germany has not proved easy. Critics say the country has accomplished very little in throwing money at families in a system of benefits and tax breaks that includes allowances for children and stay-at-home mothers, and a tax break for married couples.

Demographers say that a far better investment would be to support women juggling motherhood and careers by expanding day care and after-school programs. They say recent data show that growth in fertility is more likely to come from them.

“If you look closely at the numbers, what you see is the higher the gender equality, the higher the birthrate,” said Reiner Klingholz of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development.

And liberal bloggers agree! So, problem solved. Prop up nationalized daycare and demographic difficulties just take care of themselves.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not that simple.

For starters, the countries in the “high fertility band” from France to Scandinavia don’t really have “high” fertility. None of them is above the replacement rate and only France is even close. Germany’s total fertility rate is about 1.43. Now, sweep down the list and look at the TFR’s in Scandinavia: Norway is at 1.77; Denmark 1.73; Sweden 1.67. That’s the “success” being heralded.

Are the Scandinavian countries better off than Germany? Sure. Are they still in a whole mess of trouble, even with their super-progressive daycare programs and cultures of gender equality? You betcha. Think about it this way: If we had Sweden’s fertility rate here in America, you’d be hearing klaxon alarms every day about the demographic cliff we had careened over.

Which leaves France. France has a legitimately great fertility rate: 2.08—which is within spitting distance of the replacement rate. But is French fertility driven by its daycare centers? Not so much. Separate out the fertility rates of native-born Frenchwomen from the foreign-born population and you see a tremendous divide. Native-born French women have a TFR around 1.7. Foreign-born French women are much higher, probably north of 2.8. (Finding hard numbers here is difficult because it is taboo in France to make such demographic distinctions. Which means that in order for French demographers to get the same numbers our Census Bureau puts out every year, they have to hand-count (and sort) birth records. For a good discussion of all of this, see Christopher Caldwell’s definitive Reflections on the Revolution in Europe.)

What the gulf between native- and foreign-born French fertility suggests is that daycare centers and gender equality have only helped France so much—about as much, actually, as they’ve helped Scandinavia. What really gives France its demographic boost has been immigration which, in the French experience, has also been a source of many problems.

There’s actually been a fair amount of academic study on the efficacy of pro-natalist measures—everything from baby bribes to state-run daycare—and the evidence suggests that none of these efforts bring about much more than marginal returns. (This econometric analysis by Gauthier and Hatzius is a good place to start, if you’re interested.)

This isn’t to say that nationalized daycare is a bad idea. If people on the left (or elsewhere) want to make a principled case that such a system is an important expression of societal values and would work as a building block in showing national seriousness about pro-natalism, then that’s a perfectly good argument and we should absolutely have that discussion.

But anyone who looks at demographic decline and says, “Hey, just give us nationalized daycare and the problem takes care of itself” is either uninformed, or trying to sell you something.

I’m not selling anything myself. (Except a book—pick up your copy of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting today!) But I’d suggest that when it comes to demographics and falling fertility rates there are no easy answers. If you want to understand how truly deep Germany’s problems run, consider this: In 2005, Europe did a Population Policy Acceptance Study which looked at a broad range of demographic indicators. One of these indicators was “ideal fertility”—that is, how many kids an individual thought was the ideal number.

Twenty-three percent of German men—that’s not a typo, 23 percent—said that “zero” was the ideal family size. There probably aren’t public policy solutions to a cultural worldview like that.

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