Sunday, September 3, 2017

The United States, Families, and the Happiness Penalty

The United States is awash with politicians who promote “family values” as a fundamental requirement for a healthy nation.  They are usually referring to a nuclear family with a few children and two straight parents.  If that is the ideal, one would think that said politicians would do more to make it easier to raise a family.  It is not uncommon to encounter headlines such as People Without Kids Are Way Happier Than Parents in the U.S.  The consensus seems to agree with the accuracy of that statement.  What is it about the US that renders parents unhappy?  Is the US unique in this respect?  Is there a pain associated with modern parenthood that explains the lower fertility observed in the wealthier nations that often leads to declining populations?

There is an organization called the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) that set out to answer those questions.  Their findings are summarized in CCF BRIEF: Parenting and Happiness in 22 Countries.  They refer to the degree to which parents are less happy than nonparents as the “happiness penalty.” 

“Many people now know that parents in the United States report being less happy than nonparents, but there is considerable disagreement about why parents pay a “happiness penalty,” along with conflicting reports about whether this is true in most contemporary cultures. To explore these questions, our team, with support from the National Science Foundation, examined comparative data from 22 European and English-speaking countries.”

The CCF concludes that this happiness penalty is not inevitable and that there are countries in which parenthood actually leads to greater happiness.

“The good news is that parents are not doomed to be unhappier than nonparents. Our results indicate that the parental ‘happiness penalty’ varies substantially from country to country, and is not an inevitable accompaniment of contemporary family life. In fact, in some countries, such as Norway and Hungary, parents are actually happier than nonparents!”

However, the US was notably deficient in parental happiness compared to other countries, a curious situation for a supposedly family-values nation.

“The bad news is that of the 22 countries we studied, the U.S. has the largest happiness shortfall among parents compared to nonparents, significantly larger than the gap found in Great Britain and Australia.”

Why should that be?  The CCF has a very simple and obvious explanation.  Parental happiness increases when governments provide services that make life easier for parents to earn a living and raise children.  The US is the worst performer because it has the most family-unfriendly policies of any of the other countries studied.

“What we found was astonishing. The negative effects of parenthood on happiness were entirely explained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations. And this was true for both mothers and fathers. Countries with better family policy “packages” had no happiness gap between parents and non-parents.”

Services like low-cost childcare, healthcare, education, and generous family leave policies that provide flexibility in dealing with the contingencies associated with raising children can be provided through general taxation more efficiently by governments than by parents who must seek them on the open market.  Not surprisingly, these are the same policies that lead to greater happiness for a population as a whole.

“Furthermore, the positive effects of good family support policies for parents were not achieved at the expense of non-parents, as some commentators have claimed might be the case. The policies that helped parents the most were policies that also improved the happiness of everyone in that country, whether they had children or not. Policies such as guaranteed minimum paid sick and vacation days make everyone happier, but they had an extra happiness bonus for parents of minor children.”

The US has been experienced a growing population in recent years that is due mainly to immigration.  Non-immigrant citizens seem to have a fertility level that is right around the value necessary to maintain a constant population.  Are their long-term ramifications for the nation from continuing the US policy of making it extremely difficult and expensive to raise children?  An article in The Economist provided some relevant information that addresses that issue.

The subject for The Economist was the tendency of women to refrain from having children.  The article concluded that the trend to have children later in life condensed the period in which women could have children.  That shortened period could be eliminated entirely for some who undergo economic shocks and decide to delay having children.  Consider the following data.

Plotted for the United States are the percentages of women who are childless at a given age as related to their year of birth.  The trend to give birth later in life is apparent, but generally women eventually had children at a more or less constant rate—at least until the housing bubble and the Great Recession that followed.  In the boom years just after the turn of this century women were more likely to have children.  That trend ended and turned around during the Great Recession.  The trend is most noticeable for the 30-year-olds.  But note that the recession has come and gone and the 30-year-olds continue to put off childbirth at an increasing rate.  The curve for women at age 35 begins to show the same trend. 

It is too early to assume that these curves can be extrapolated and that deciding to not have children might become ever more common.  But one would think that politicians who believe so fervently in the wisdom of markets would realize that making parenthood expensive and difficult might cause people to forego that burden.

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

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