Does Europe know best?

Posted: Nov 11, 2002 12:00 AM
When it comes to family policy, many Americans have an acute case of Europe-envy. In European countries, paid maternal leaves, universal government-provided child care, and state subsidies for all children, not just poor children, are the rule. Efforts to bring these allegedly pro-family benefits to U.S. shores are intensifying: California recently passed a paid maternal leave, and GOP rising star Arnold Schwarzenegger stumped for universal before- and after-school programs. The future for advocates of Euro-style family welfare benefits looks particularly bright.

At a conference on maternal feminism last week co-sponsored by the Barnard Center for Research on Women and the Institute for American Values, for example, a panel of distinguished women scholars and activists (including Sylvia Ann Hewlett, NOW's Kim Gandy, Enola Aird and Janet Giele) disagreed about criticizing contemporary feminists for being insufficiently maternal, but glowed with mutual warmth at the idea of passing Euro-style family policies. American moms (we were told) are about to rise up and demand that the government resolve our work/family dilemmas with subsidized leaves, subsidized day care, subsidized childbearing.

Maybe so. But will it be good for women and families? I could not help noticing that the social conditions that allow mothers to make contributions outside the labor market to family, neighborhoods, schools and communities (such as stable marriages and pro-family tax policies) formed little part of this particular motherhood agenda. Consumed with Euro-envy, these impressive women seemed mostly to feel that the difficult task of developing policies that support all mothers and children have been long-solved across the Atlantic.

OK, professors, here is my question: If Europe is so good at resolving work/family dilemmas, why is the European family disappearing?

As the current issue of The American Enterprise points out, "Birth rates in Europe have been catastrophically low for two decades. Europe is thus getting old and starting to shrink." In just 30 years, half of all Germans will be over age 50, and as editor Karl Zinmeister so delicately puts it: "Every single employed individual will have his own elderly person 65 or older to provide for through the public pension system."

The territories currently occupied by people formerly known as Europeans will, if current trends continue, be replaced by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of formerly non-Europeans. In just 20 years, according to writer Mark Steyn, the majority of Dutch children will be Muslims.

Meanwhile, paying for Euro-style benefits leaves families groaning under punitive tax burdens and stagnating economies: Since 1970, America has created 57 million new jobs, while the entire EU has created just 5 million. Forty percent of unemployed Europeans have been out of work for more than a year, compared to just 6 percent in the United States.

Why do Euro-family supports fail to support the family? Here is what I suspect (and research suggests): Subsidized child care and paid leaves actually function to maximize female labor force participation. They signal to women (and husbands) that a few months off is all that women and children need, actually discouraging family-centered women from reorganizing work and family to devote themselves to home. Meanwhile, no combination of subsidies can get around the fact that each child a mother has makes it harder to commit full energies to the work force. A society that does not support married mothers' work in home, family and community finds that married mothers limit their childbearing to just one child. It is a lot safer and easier that way.

American-style family tax benefits, by contrast, seem to do a better job of protecting family income, allowing married women to have the children they want, and encouraging an economy of gratitude within the family.

The American family has many critical problems, certainly, but why look to the failed policies of a shrinking civilization for answers?