Why Britain should copy Hungary and give young mothers a lifetime’s tax exemption – if they have four children, writes MARY HARRINGTON
Britain’s baby recession is turning into a death spiral. This is not a new story, but it’s getting worse: our birth rate has been below replacement since 1972, and since 2012 births have fallen steadily for every group except the over-40s.
Births to UK women under 30 are the lowest they’ve been since records began in 1938.
Our baby ‘crunch’ is bringing with it a host of slow-burn social problems. We’re facing an epidemic of loneliness among the elderly, and a bulging population of retirees whose age-related needs place growing strain on Britain’s faltering social care infrastructure.
And the tax burden that funds such support is borne by a dwindling body of working-age adults, straining solidarity between old and young. Meanwhile, we’re locked in an increasingly bitter culture war over what has become recent governments’ de facto solution to its shrinking native tax base – namely boosting the working-age population via mass immigration.
I don’t blame young women, though, for turning away from motherhood. Almost everything about normal life for twentysomethings today makes having kids a terrible idea.
Births to UK women under 30 are the lowest they’ve been since records began in 1938 (stock image)
We have Tony Blair to thank for some of this. In 1999, when he set a target for 50 per cent of young people to go to university, the aim was to catapult Britain into the 21st Century as a knowledge economy.
But 20 years on, it’s clear his flagship policy succeeded mainly in inflating the cost of degrees while diminishing their value to the point where some employers expect first-jobbers to have not just a bachelor’s but a master’s degree for roles that were once filled by school-leavers.
Thanks to Blair, today’s youth must spend ever more of their 20s pursuing courses that leave them on average £36,000 in debt before working life even starts.
Though the 50 per cent target was dropped in July, the damage is done. Ambitious young people can’t afford to skip higher education – and according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 57 per cent of undergraduates in 2018 were female.
Of course, full-time student life is wildly incompatible with caring for children. So most young women, not unreasonably, put family on the back burner and spend half of their most fertile and energetic decade getting the certificates that grant entry to the starting lines of the career race. Then they start working to pay off their student debts.
But having delayed professional life to their mid-20s, young women then find that graduate salaries have flatlined.
Thanks to Blair, today’s youth must spend ever more of their 20s pursuing courses that leave them on average £36,000 in debt before working life even starts (stock image)
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), the median hourly graduate wage fell 20 per cent between 2008 and 2013, and even before Covid struck it was recovering only weakly. Meanwhile, the cost of accommodation has rocketed – and not just in the capital.
By 2018, according to the BBC, rent was devouring more than 30 per cent of the average twentysomething’s salary in 65 per cent of British postcodes.
And you can forget buying: the IFS reports that home ownership among adults in their 20s has halved in the past two decades.
So the average young woman today graduates tens of thousands of pounds in debt into an uncertain job market. She starts her working life in her mid-20s, jammed cheek by jowl into an overpriced and grotty flatshare, and spends at least the rest of her 20s trying to get started in a career – never mind trying to get a mortgage deposit together. No sensible young woman would be in a hurry to have a baby under those circumstances.
And this is before we get to social and cultural factors.
For the Tinder generation, new and more exciting romantic prospects are only ever a swipe away – a fact that meshes disastrously with our biological drives.
If we’re to tackle our tanking birth rate, Conservatives must get over their squeamishness about intervention and take a stand for families (stock image)
The evolved inclination of males to, er, share their DNA around finds abundant opportunity in ‘hook-up culture’ to do so without commitment. Meanwhile, the adaptive female preference for males with status and resources means those young men with what the Victorians used to call ‘prospects’ are hot property. So these lucky fellows play the field relentlessly, and have no incentive to settle down and have kids with anyone.
Thus, you might be a twentysomething woman who’s navigated student debt, the housing crisis and the graduate job pinch, and now feel ready for motherhood. But you’ll soon discover that the men who might make half-decent providers are too busy having fun to want the expense and commitment of a wife and children. The rest are living in Mum’s basement, playing computer games.
What can we do about all this?
Government subsidy is a blunt instrument, but we can learn from the pro-family measures which the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban – a controversial figure in the liberal West – has introduced to boost his country’s flagging birth rate. Married Hungarian women under 40 can apply for government-backed loans of up to 10 million Hungarian forint (about £22,000), to help them start a family. The debt is wiped after three or more children. Other measures include home-buying help, again contingent on having children, and a lifetime exemption from income tax for women who have four or more. Since its announcement in 2019, the Hungarian birth rate has risen by 5.5 per cent.
For example, if we wanted to incentivise women to start families before beginning study and work, rather than leaving it to their 30s like I did, we could make university free for mums of more than two kids and normalise part-time study.
If we wanted to encourage Generation Rent to settle down, we could peg the Help To Buy deposit scheme to family formation – even to marriage – and ring-fence new-build council houses for young families.
For example, if we wanted to incentivise women to start families before beginning study and work, rather than leaving it to their 30s like I did, we could make university free for mums of more than two kids and normalise part-time study (stock image)
While we’re at it, politicians could stop pretending that marriage doesn’t matter.
Elites pay only lip service to this lie: someone in the top social class today is 48 per cent more likely to be married than someone at the bottom of the scale. Our policy should reflect what the elites know to be true.
At the least the Tories should repeal their disgraceful no-fault divorce proposal, and a proper transferable tax allowance for married couples should be reintroduced. Such measures, though, would sit uncomfortably with both the mainstream Left and Right in Britain.
On the Left, accusations would be flung about it being anti-feminist and ‘heteronormative’ (that is, promoting heterosexuality as the preferred family set-up). Equally, such an interventionist state would also be anathema to the free-market Right, for whom the Government should stick to oiling the wheels of the market and stay out of people’s personal lives.
But staying out of people’s lives isn’t the same thing as leaving women free to choose.
Studies show that right across the developed world, including in the UK, women want more children than they end up having. And the more educated a woman is, the bigger the gap between desired and actual family size.
Behind such statistics is the quiet grief of millions of women who’ve had to make painful choices between career, security and more children. Women’s notional freedom is not, in many cases, delivering what women want.
There’s no doubt that the feminist emphasis on career has contributed to downward pressure on fertility. But it’s not enough to point the finger at women’s choices while ignoring the economic and cultural factors that shape those decisions.
If we’re to tackle our tanking birth rate, Conservatives must get over their squeamishness about intervention and take a stand for families.
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