The disproportionate burden that yesterday’s budget placed on the structures of care in our society – family relationships, health and education – will no doubt receive much justified critique in the coming days.  As the recent report from the ‘Growing Up in Ireland’ study revealed – consistent with evidence from the ‘New Urban Living’ study – throughout the boom Irish people continued to rely on extended family relationships to provide care, in the context of comparatively weak state investment in social infrastructure.  In the new era of austerity – with high levels of unemployment and even fewer public resources for the elderly, disabled and sick – those family relationships will be stretched further.

In this context, I was puzzled to note an odd whiff of anti-natalism in yesterday’s announcements, specifically in the decision to remove the additional level of child benefit to third children, and to reduce maternity benefit.  Now many commentators from across the political spectrum think increasing women’s labour force participation is a good idea.  Over on Irish Economy, Richard Tol has argued that increasing women’s economic opportunities would contribute to economic recovery by increasing productivity.   Sociologist Lane Kenworthy has argued that increasing female employment can form part of a strategy to reduce social inequality – not just between men and women, but across the social class hierarchy.

It is true that caring for young children can act as a barrier to women’s employment.  It is also true that, despite the substantial increase in women’s labour force participation, a sizable minority of Irish women continue to withdraw from paid work following the birth of children, to a greater extent, perhaps, than  in some European countries.  But as our European partners must know, dis-incentivizing people from having children is a self-defeating response to the problem of balancing work and family responsibilities.

In fact, our comparatively high fertility rate is one big advantage Ireland has over the other troubled peripheral Eurozone economies, where underdeveloped welfare states have contributed to plummeting fertility in the context of rising female employment.  Ireland got away with rising levels of female employment in the context of an economic boom because of the availability of part-time employment and informal support from grandparents and other extended family members.

During the first phase of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ (when our economic growth rates reflected real increases in economic activity) researchers in the ESRI noted the importance of our ‘demographic dividend’ in making it all possible.  That same demographic dividend has ensured that the problems associated with ageing societies are not nearly as pressing in Ireland as elsewhere in Europe, such that we can raid the National Pension Reserve Fund with some regret, but with relative equanimity.  I can understand that Scandinavian-style investment in supports for working parents may seem out of the question in the current economic climate – although I think an argument could be made that such investments would foster sustained economic recovery and a more equitable society.  I don’t know if removing these small supports in the form of child benefit and maternity leave will have a material effect on Irish fertility levels.  But I do think the decision to do so is bizarre and unprecedented in Ireland.

Jane Gray

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