With the race to succeed Boris Johnson as the UK’s next prime minister now well underway, the dozen or so candidates will be eyeing wholesome, feel-good policies designed to lure in the electorate. But if any are tempted to borrow from the American notion of “motherhood and apple pie,” they’ll find themselves in waters uncharted by the past few decades of British politics.
Dr Paul Morland, author of a new book on the country’s declining birth rate, courted controversy last week with an op-ed in The Sunday Times in which he bemoaned the lack of a “pro-natal culture” for fewer and fewer people deciding to start families.
According to Morland, to avert demographic disaster, the next government should offer tax credits to new parents, have the Queen send telegrams to those celebrating the birth of their third child, and even tax the childless for their decision. “This may seem unfair on those who can’t or won’t have children,” he wrote, “but it recognises that we all rely on there being a next generation and that everyone should contribute to the cost of creating that generation.”
The proposal has, unsurprisingly, generated outcry among many who feel their reproductive decisions – or the circumstances behind them – are none of the state’s business. Scottish novelist Dr Claire Askew hit out at Morland’s suggestions, saying “reserve me a jail cell, lads, because there’s no way on God’s green earth that I am paying a childless tax.” Others have pointed out that explaining the policy to those desperate to have children but unable to, or bereaved parents, would be a suicide pill for any politician.
And yet, the UK has historically put in place some benefits for those who do start families, most of which have since dropped by the wayside. From 1945, the government offered not insubstantial payments to those with children, first as the “Family Allowance” and later as “Child Benefit.” However, the cost-cutting Coalition Government decided in 2013 to begin means-testing the benefit, excluding those earning more than £60,000 from receiving it. The change mirrored a shift in focus from incentivising parenthood to solely addressing child poverty, and came after the scrapping of the Married Couples Allowance that made the benefits of formal partnership virtually negligible.
At the same time though, having children has become far more expensive. The average cost of sending a toddler to nursery full-time is now £263 a week, and the Trades Union Congress points out the annual bill has risen by £2,000 over the past decade. That makes Britain one of the most expensive countries in the world to be a working parent, and the cost disproportionately affects women deciding whether to return to work or to stay home with their children.
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Given a mother of two toddlers faces shelling out around £26,000 a year just for daycare, the financial equation in favour of going back to the office is far from clear-cut for all but the best-paid. Meanwhile, statutory maternity pay has effectively stagnated, and is worth £5 less per week now than it was in 2010. Even if initiatives like shared parental leave are being adopted by many firms, studies have shown that only around one in ten people are using it. Worse still, 38 per cent of mothers told YouGov last year that having children harmed their careers – compared to just 2 per cent of men – and more than half had to give up their jobs temporarily or permanently.
As a result, despite the increasing rhetoric around supporting women to have children and the need for employers to be flexible with parents, the reality is that it has become more expensive and difficult to balance with their professional aspirations. The rising cost of living and decreasing purchasing power of a typical salary means relying on a single earner isn’t an option for many, and for educated university graduates with a few feet up the career ladder, the decision must be a daunting one.
It is little wonder then that the UK’s population growth has slowed from 7.8 per cent between 2001-2011, to 6.3 per cent over the past decade, while the number of births is almost level with the number of deaths. Britain is getting older, and half of those now reaching their 30th birthday have remained childless.
That shift, as demographers like Morland point out, has consequences for society. Countries like Japan experienced that same shortfall in the number of births more than half a century ago, and it is now hitting record lows. The result has been fewer taxpayers and healthcare workers, and more pensioners that need pensions and medical support. As well as an economic crisis, the inverted population pyramid has created a political one, with the overwhelmingly homogenous island state being forced to contemplate relaxing its tough migration laws just to staff nursing homes and care facilities.
Morland’s proposals, however, seem at odds with the British notion of respect for personal choice, and appear more reminiscent of the policies of Communist states. The Soviet Union, preoccupied with settling its vast and largely uninhabited hinterlands, rolled out a Mother Heroine medal for women who had ten or more children, and its propaganda frequently featured parenthood as the ultimate goal of womanhood. Despite breaking down the barriers for women studying at university and taking on professional jobs, there was – and largely still is in much of its successor states – a taboo about putting personal goals before reproduction.
Likewise, Warsaw Pact-era Romania, under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, wielded both the carrot and the stick that Morland envisages, hitting childless families with a tax rate 30% higher than those with three or more children. It banned contraception, prevented almost any sex education from being given and stationed police officers in hospitals to ensure abortions weren’t carried out for even the most desperate of women. On paper, it worked, and the birth rate virtually doubled from 1966 to 1967. However, it soon fell back to its initial rate, as poverty and high levels of infant death put off prospective parents, while black market abortion rackets inevitably boomed.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the execution of Ceausescu in Romania, the population of much of Eastern Europe has tailed off, leaving countries like Russia with the same kinds of problems as Japan. It’s hard to believe that’s down to a lack of medals or celebratory telegrams for new mothers. Instead, the poverty that took hold in the newly-capitalist Eastern Bloc is a far likelier culprit, just as the financial impossibility of having children is putting off many British would-be parents.
While there will always be a number of people who simply don’t want to, or aren’t able to, have children, there are plenty more who would choose to, if only the circumstances were right. Just as their decision not to have children has implications for the future of the country, the state’s policy decisions have implications for whether those conditions are met. And, for years, governments of the day have done almost nothing to see that they are. As a result, aspiring Prime Ministers looking for their own slice of “motherhood and apple pie” might quickly find that the price of apples is sharply on the rise, and the cost of motherhood is higher than ever before.