The Birth Dearth and the Smartphone Age

My newsroom colleagues Jason Horowitz and Gaia Pianigiani have a lovely report this week about family-friendly policies in the Italian province of Alto Adige-South Tyrol, which has the highest birthrate of any region in an aging, depopulating Italy.

Their story is a portrait not just of a particular policy matrix but also the culture that policy can help foster. In particular, it highlights the extent to which the province offers not just direct funding for parents — for the family with six kids profiled in the story, that means 200 euros a month for each child until they turn 3, on top of the family benefits offered by Italy’s national government — but also a more comprehensive attempt to build a child-friendly social order. The province’s parents “enjoy discounted nursery schools, baby products, groceries, health care, energy bills, transportation, after-school activities and summer camps.” Teachers are encouraged “to turn their apartments into small nurseries,” workplaces offer breastfeeding breaks, and one workplace lobby is filled with “fliers advertising ‘Welcome Baby’ backpacks loaded with tips for new parents and picture books.”

As a portrait of a family-friendly exception to a larger anti-natal rule, the story dovetails with arguments in a new book from Tim Carney of The Washington Examiner, “Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be,” which focuses on the ways that American society conspires to make parenting seem incredibly high-effort, well-nigh impossible.

Some of what Carney describes is a set of habits that’s beyond the reach of policy. (I don’t think there’s much the government can do to persuade parents to “Have Lower Ambitions for Your Kids,” to select one of his more striking chapter titles.) But some of the sense of overwhelmingness that comes with modern parenting seems like it could be mitigated, not just through a once-a-year benefit or tax credit, but also through small consistent signals of support: the family discount on groceries, the convenient in-home child care option, the open play space, the flexible work space.

If the developed world isn’t going to disappear into a gray and underpopulated future, there needs to be some “change in the overall ethos and structure of parenting,” as my Opinion colleague Jessica Grose put it last year, some rewiring of both parental and societal expectations — a rewiring that one Italian province, in my colleagues’ account, seems to have partly achieved.

But emphasize that “partly.” Last week, The Financial Times’s data maven, John Burn-Murdoch, ran a story under the headline “Why family-friendly policies don’t boost birthrates.” That claim seems to conflict with the lessons of Alto Adige-South Tyrol, but really what Burn-Murdoch meant wasn’t that such policies have no effect at all. It’s just that they don’t seem to boost birthrates enough to make up for whatever social and cultural and economic forces keep pushing them below replacement and then even lower still.

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