Polly Toynbee wants us all to know that it’s the doom and gloom of having the Tories in power which has lowered fertility rates in Britain. For, under Blair and Brown we all dropped children like confetti. This is, amazingly, her actual argument too:
Of course birthrates are plunging – the Tories have created a child-unfriendly society
OK, fair enough, Polly doesn’t write her headlines. Except this really is her argument:
This comes as no surprise, looking at historical patterns: when times are hard people can afford fewer babies. In this miserable decade when wages fell back, when good jobs were replaced with insecure, disrespected work, young people struggle to pay rent, home ownership falls and many live with parents well into their 30s.
The Labour years saw birthrates rise. There was no conscious pro-natalist policy to boost the population, but a government full of new women MPs focused on nurseries. Primed with evidence that good early development is the best investment for education and a good life, they quoted at the Treasury the Perry HighScope project from the days of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in the US. It proved how investment in two years of intensive pre-school help for families yielded great savings later as those children thrived.
That inspired Labour’s Sure Start: its 3,500 children’s centres, one in pram-pushing distance of every young family, were popular and welcoming places providing midwives, health visitors, parenting classes, drop-in playgroups and nurseries as hubs for isolated young parents. Subsidised childcare helped mothers back to work. Child tax credits boosted family incomes, taking a million children out of poverty. Maternity rights expanded, with paternity pay introduced. Making life easier for mothers allowed them to have more children in a time of optimism amid economic growth.
Well, sure, it could be that if you spawn you get to introduce the kid to bureaucrats early on, that might be what raised fertility rates.
It could also be that recessions reduce fertility. For at the population level fertility is pro-cyclical.
Other explanations are possible. Perhaps the arrival of Blair and Brown meant we were all so aghast that we stayed in bed with the obvious consequences. That bright new dawn of the Cameroons brought us out again and so we did other stuff. Or perhaps we were so excited by Blair that we forgot where the condoms were.
Or perhaps we could be mildly serious for a moment. Immigrants bring with them the fertility levels of their source. It is in the second and third generations that the number of children resets toward the levels of the host population. This is well known and should be so to everyone who wishes to talk about the subject.
Mass immigration is a relatively new thing in Britain. The grand surge was, as we know, under Blair and Brown as the central European accession countries were allowed to export labour to us. That wave of Polish plumbers – in itself a good thing. It’s just that such things must be considered in the round.
We had a wave of immigration, those immigrants brought their fertility rates with them. That wave has reduced somewhat in recent years.
This wave was significant as ONS points out in relation to the fertility levels:
It’s a big enough effect to have made a difference at the population level.
Please note what is not being said here. That the rise and then decline in fertility rates is purely a product of damn foreigners coming over here and sprogging. Rather, that a discussion of fertility that does not consider the impact of immigration is worth the usual amount of a Polly Toynbee examination of reality – not a great deal.
It is actually possible, as Polly asserts, that British women had more unprotected sex as a result of the provision of state podding hutches. We do though need rather more consideration of the facts before we so conclude.