Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How Québec and Alberta are (so far) avoiding lowest-low fertility

Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders recently drew my attention, and that of others to an interesting new study on fertility patterns in his article "Making more babies: a stimulus plan." Saunders explains for the curious the import of population increase generally and replacement-level fertility specifically.

Here is where you start to understand the obsession with birth rates: The catastrophic credit-crunch recession is making those rates fall at precisely the moment when the economy badly needs them to rise.

Germany announced this week that economic growth has resumed for the first time in a year. It accomplished this by dumping huge sums of government money into the economy, at great cost: Its government debt is now equivalent to around 70 per cent of its entire economy, and it is about to borrow another 350 billion euros.

Such debt levels are a temporary worry provided that long-term growth returns. Public-debt levels were higher after the Second World War, after all, and spending didn't have to come down: The economy simply outgrew the debt, as did government revenues, until it became negligible.

But that recovery was accompanied by a baby boom, bringing new young taxpayers and revenue-generators into the economy. A declining population, on the other hand, is by definition an aging one, and the pension, health and other public costs of an old population, combined with the lost tax revenue of a big non-working population, are enough to kill the economy.

Canada is--much as we might deny it--basically a multinational polity with component provinces jealously guarding their autonomy, some like Québec in particular maintaining policies quite different from those of the Canadian average, allowing for some degree of variation. Saunders points to a recent study, Roderic Beaujot and Juyan Wang's "Low fertility lite: The Nordic model in Quebec and the U.S. Model in Alberta", that might explain why TFRs have been sharply rising in those two provinces.

Canadian fertility has increased over the last four years, from 1.51 in 2002 to 1.59 in 2006. The increases have been highest in Quebec and Alberta. In Quebec, the increase has been occurring over the period 2000 to 2007, from a total fertility rate of 1.45 to 1.65 (Institut de la statistique du Québec, 2008: 28). In Alberta, the increase is from 1.64 in 2000 to 1.82 in 2006.

While many considerations are at stake in low fertility, it would appear that questions of economic risks and policy support are key matters (McDonald, 2006; Gauthier and Philipov, 2008). Roy and Bernier (2006) had argued that the Quebec family and policy trends were coming to resemble the Nordic model, with a high proportion of births in cohabiting unions, and considerable state support, especially through the Ministère de la Famille, des Aînés et de la Condition féminine.

But other countries, and the United States in particular, have managed higher fertility through a model that involves low state support. The strong job growth experienced in the United States since the recession of the early 1990s meant that, even with poor job protection, withdrawals from the labour force were less risky; people could be confident of their employment prospects when they desired to return to the labour market. In Canada, the most recent period has seen Alberta emerge as the province of strong job growth, to the point that in some years it was the only province with a substantial positive net internal migration. Commenting on the labour force data for 2006,
The Globe and Mail used the headline: “Women in the East join work force, women in West leave in droves” (Scoffield, 2006). Exaggerated as the headline was, it may have touched a reality in terms of alternative opportunities and preferences during this period of resource-sector growth in Alberta (2-3)

The general shift towards delayed fertility has helped boost cohort fertility. "[C]onsequently, completed fertility as of age 50, which had declined to 1.61 for the 1954-58 cohorts in Quebec, is estimated to rise to 1.72 for the 1972-73 cohort. For Canada as a whole, cohort fertility declined from 3.4 in the birth cohorts of the late 1920s, to 1.8 in the cohorts of the early 1950s, but it has been estimated in the stable range of 1.74 to 1.76 for cohorts from the mid 1960s to the late 1970s (Statistics Canada, 2008: 33)."

But the shift upwards has been most pronounced in Alberta and Québec. What's responsible for this? Saunders summarizes their conclusions.

They identified two baby-friendly systems. There's the “American” model, in which, thanks to high employment, “even with poor job protection, withdrawals from the labour force were less risky; people could be confident of their employment prospects when they desired to return to the labour market.”

On the other hand, in the “Nordic” model, even with poor employment levels, combining family and work was possible because of strong child-care, family-support and maternity-leave programs. (Canada, like Germany, lacks both high employment and generous child care, so doesn't really fit into either model.)

“In that context,” they conclude, “it is noteworthy that fertility is rising most in Alberta and Quebec, that is in provinces where young families have had the security of either good job opportunities or supportive social policy.”

It may also be worth noting that Canada as a whole has low total and completed fertility. Here in Ontario, for instance, child care spaces are hard to come by and things aren't getting better, while Ontario's unemployment rate continues to rise as the automotive manufacturing sector continues its slow-motion implosion and takes the rest of the industrial economy with it. (Québec, as an article I linked to a while back noted, had a much more diversified and stable economy going in and, for the first time in a while, has lower rates of unemployment than Ontario.)

If these trends continue, I wonder how the balance between provinces might evolve. Ontario has traditionally been the dominant player in Confederation, but if its economy continues to perform below-par while demographic trends turn against it, even as Québec remains stable and Alberta continues to grow, interesting things could happen. Canadian political analyst James Laxer has suggested that the Québec-Alberta alliance that brought Canada into North America free trade alliances in the 1980s might be revived, perhaps to further decentralize the country. (Will we one day speak not of "Canada" but rather of "the Canadas"?)

While we're waiting for the very fabric of Canada to be rewoven beyond all recognition, in the meantime Beaujot and Wang's study makes a valuable contribution to the study of demographic differences between societies. Insecurity and uncertainty of whatever kind never helps.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

No discussion of role of immigrant fertility. Where do immigrants to Canada go, and how do their fertility patterns differ from existing Canadians?