Fertility and family policy in Australia

Research Paper No. 41 – February 2008

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8. Conclusion

In the first instance, this paper outlined fertility trends, their implications for Australia, and key government policies directed towards supporting Australian families. Secondly, the results from a major national survey that explored contributing factors influencing fertility-making decisions were discussed.

From the research and evidence presented, it suggests that macro-level factors associated with higher fertility rates across countries include a strong economy and relatively low unemployment rates, a higher level of wage replacement during maternity leave, higher levels of government payments to families that reduce the costs of children, a higher rate of female employment (particularly maternal employment), higher use of non-parental child care, and a higher proportion of female employment being part-time.

An important message to be taken from the research is that a number of OECD countries with very different characteristics, economic and social policies have fertility rates that are around 1.7 to 1.8. This demonstrates that there is no unique set of specific policies associated with the achievement of such fertility levels in OECD countries.

Generally, however, it is fair to say that policies that lower the direct and indirect costs of raising children to families and allow women to combine paid employment with childrearing are likely to boost fertility rates. Policy changes in Australia over the last 25 years have certainly reduced the direct costs of childrearing through expanding the family payment system to include families with relatively high incomes. The recently introduced maternity payment has also provided significant financial support to families following the birth of a child.

In order to enhance fertility rates, it is important that families have support as the child grows up, not just when the child is a pre-schooler. Potential parents need to feel confident that any children they may have are in with a good chance of experiencing a secure lifestyle throughout their childhood and into adulthood (where "security" covers both material and psycho-social concerns). Parents also need to feel confident that they can manage to raise their children while also enjoying opportunities for personal development, beyond the world of family life.

Although Australia's fertility rate has been below the level of replacement for about three decades, most people of childbearing age want to have children and few consider no children or one child their ideal number of children. Close to two-thirds expect to achieve their ideal family size. On the other hand, a substantial minority of men and women do not expect to have their ideal number of children. Some people made downward revisions of their preferred family size over time and such revision was related to: advancing age, lack of a partner and relationship breakdown. Reasons for upward revisions included: "growing up", finding a partner and feeling secure in this relationship.

A fundamental challenge for policy makers, would seem to be that much of this terrain is in the realm of the private, and governments are naturally reluctant to intrude into people's relationship issues - even where there may be serious long-lasting consequences when a population is unable to replace itself. Nevertheless, governments have been willing to support programs that aim to enhance relationships, such as relationship counselling programs. There is evidence that premarital education is associated with a lower risk of marriage breakdown, but only a minority of couples participate in such programs, and those who do may possess characteristics that favour strong relationships.

Despite Australia's economic prosperity, people remain concerned about their capacity to create and maintain a family environment in which children can be nurtured and supported financially and emotionally. Such concerns, real or perceived, reflect macro-level trends in economic and employment security and in relationship formation pathways and their stability, as well as micro-level concerns about people's personal capacity to be good parents. Strategies directed towards helping people achieve their childbearing aspirations need to tackle their sense of security in each of these three domains. The data suggest that these strategies should target forces both at the macro- and micro-levels - for neither level acts in isolation.

In conclusion, governments need to use a combination of approaches that is based on the recognition that a low fertility rate is not due to a "lack of wanting children". If Australia is to boost its fertility rate - or at least maintain the current level - the message that raising children has an intrinsic richness and is an enjoyable part of life needs to be conveyed widely. To be effective, however, such a message must reflect reality. Couples need to have personal resources such as a secure income stream, a loving and stable relationship, and the skills and confidence to be parents. They also require access to community resources, including family-friendly workplaces and the confidence that they have a strong, continuing commitment from the community. It is of the utmost importance that parents do not feel alone in raising the next generation of citizens.