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Home | Library | The Silent Partner in Family Decline

The Silent Partner in Family Decline

June 9, 2004

Tags Global EconomyBig GovernmentTaxes and SpendingU.S. EconomyEducationMedia and CultureInterventionism

The traditional family has for many centuries and in most countries been the core unit of society. It has been the foundation and even the ultimate purpose in many people's lives. It has provided a stable framework to bring children into the world, to raise them, to teach them manners and how to become productive and happy human beings. It has been relied upon for emotional and financial support, and in many other regards.

All this is changing now.

Below are some statistical facts about the Danish family, a country with an advanced welfare state and advanced decline in family life. It is a useful study as an archetype of many developed countries.

  • Fewer people are getting married and when they do marry it is later in life. 88 percent of 30-year old women were married in 1970. In 2002 the number was 47 percent.
  • The average age of first marriage has risen for women from 22.8 years old in 1970 to 30.3 years old in 2002. For men it has risen from 25.1 years in 1970 to 32.8 years in 2002.
  • More and more people live together without getting married, but more than a third of all adults are not married and do not live in any other kind of relationship. They live alone.
  • More of the marriages end in divorce. In 1975, 18 percent of all the marriages from 1950 had ended in divorce. In 2000, 37 percent of all the marriages from 1975 had ended in divorce.
  • Women are getting older before they become mothers. The average age of women giving birth in 2002 was 29.9 years, which had increased from 26.7 years in 1970. The average age of first time mothers was 23.7 years in 1970, in 1996 it was 27.7 years.
  • Fewer women get to be mothers. The childlessness for 40 year old women has increased from 9 percent in 1985, to 13.3 percent in 2002.
  • The fertility rate has fallen from 2.6 children in 1965 to 1.7 children in 2002.
  • More children experience breaking families. In 1981 a little less than one in every five children did not live with both his parents. Today this number has increased to one in every four children that do not live with both his parents.
  • The families with children where both parents have full time jobs have increased from 50 percent in 1980 to 83 percent in 1998. In families without any children the number has only increased from 68 percent to 75 percent.
  • The share of children between 0–6 years of age, who were in day nursery, day care or kindergarten was 7.3 percent in 1965. In 2000 the share was 76.6 percent.
  • More families with children receive welfare payments. In 1980, the families with children that received welfare benefits were 33 percent, today it is 38 percent (not counting child benefits of appx. USD 500 every three months per child, which all families receive, both rich and poor).
  • 94 percent of the families of 17 year olds (you are a child until you are 18 years old) have today received welfare payments at one point in time. Only 6 percent of the families had never received any welfare payments during the life of the child.
  • On average the families with children only save 4.1 percent of their disposable income. Families without any children save in average 14.4 percent of their disposable income. More than three times as much.[1]

Some of the explanations that have been suggested to account for these important transformations are:

  • society has become more affluent and people do not need to stay together out of necessity anymore;  
  • more people and especially more women are spending time in their twenties getting a higher education;
  • more women today are participating in the workforce;
  • people today have more opportunities that they wish to explore, which sometimes are not in harmony with the obligations that family life involves, i.e. the changes are a life style choice;
  • along with the increased affluence people have become more individualistic and selfish;
  • secularization and liberation from tradition have set people free to follow their own desires and not necessarily what society "dictates."

The changes probably have multiple causes but it would be an incomplete picture not to mention the ways that the welfare state directly and indirectly influences the family.

We can cite several channels through which the welfare state affects the family.

Generous welfare programs and benefits

The welfare programs and benefits imply that the family's role as a financial support unit has significantly decreased. A single parent will be provided well for by the government. Likewise people will be provided for by the government if they are sick, handicapped, on maternity, getting old, unemployed etc. These are all circumstances where the family previously played an important role.

Very high taxes

The high level of taxes in Denmark, which already have been discussed in a previous article: Denmark: Potemkin Village, have made it very difficult to provide for a family with only one household income. Very few people in Denmark can afford to have a house and one or two cars on only one household income. That means that both parents today normally have to work full time and even then there is still very little money left for most people when the fixed expenses are paid for. This is substantiated by the low average saving rate in families with children, and by the very high percentage of families with children where both parents work full time today. The tight economic situation put a lot of stress on the family. The family is also being stressed timewise with both parents working full-time jobs.

Nurseries, day care centers and kindergartens are subsidized by the government

The subsidies to these government institutions of course favor their use. Together with the almost impossibility of one-income families this can probably account for the spectacular increase there has been in the institutionalization of the caring of children.

Strong encouragement to use public instead of private transportation

For most families with children it is a great help in their daily lives to have a car. Unfortunately it is a specific goal of the Danish welfare state to encourage people to use public transportation in which the government has invested a lot of money. People are being encouraged in many ways. There are very high taxes on cars, gasoline and car insurance. Car prices in Denmark are approximately three times the level that they are in the USA and so are gasoline prices. These taxes are in themselves preventive for many young families.

At the same time public transportation is significantly subsidized. Other encouragements to shift to public transportation have been car traffic hampering devices such as extensive use of roundabouts, road bumps, narrowing of roads, closing down of second lanes to make more room for bicycles and pedestrians, not investing in new roads, electronic speed controls in many places, abolishment of parking spaces, huge increases in parking fees, huge increases in traffic violation fees, hiring of a lot of parking-ticket controllers and traffic police and lowering of the allowed level of alcohol in the blood when driving to practically nothing.

Not being able to have the convenience of a car when you have small children, or if you do have a car then to be financially severely burdened and also hampered in its use adds further stress to the modern Danish family, living in a world of specialization and the division of labor, where not all activities can be expected to take place in the close neighborhood.

The welfare state involves group antagonistic rhetoric

A welfare state is characterized by special interest groups fighting for government power in order to bestow political privileges on their own members. This subverts the harmony of interests that exists on the free market and often times lead to group hostility. One group's gain becomes another group's loss.

There are many special interests: Rich and poor, employers and employees, citizens and immigrants, young and old, and also men and women. You can very often hear stories in the Danish news about a new study that shows that women are not being equally treated in this or that industry, in academia, or in the government sector. You will be told that there are not as many women managers or professors as there are men, and if there are, then they are not being paid the same level of salary. No other explanatory factors are mentioned than discrimination.

All this is accompanied with demands for government intervention. Unfortunately this type of rhetoric and demand for special privilege cannot avoid creating resentment which in turn affects behavior: Why marry the enemy?

These are all channels through which it is not unreasonable to claim that the welfare state directly and indirectly plays an important role in the gradual disintegration of the Danish family. So when the welfare statists claim that they are providing safety, security and quality of life for the citizens, it seems obvious that this coerced public service is crowding out the voluntary private alternative.

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Per Henrik Hansen teaches economics at the Copenhagen Business School. Send him MAIL. See his   archive. Comment on the  Blog.

  [1] All these data are taken from official Danish statistical publications i.e. Statistisk Tiaarsoversigt 2003; Statistisk Aarbog 2003; and 50-Aars Oversigten (2001).


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