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Parental happiness and the welfare state

By Dylan Matthews

Ezra already highlighted Jennifer Senior's great New York Magazine piece on happiness and parenting, but I wanted to add a point on this section:

One hates to invoke Scandinavia in stories about child-rearing, but it can’t be an accident that the one superbly designed study that said, unambiguously, that having kids makes you happier was done with Danish subjects. The researcher, Hans-Peter Kohler, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says he originally studied this question because he was intrigued by the declining fertility rates in Europe. One of the things he noticed is that countries with stronger welfare systems produce more children — and happier parents.

This got me wondering: Is there actual social science backing up Kohler's inkling that strong welfare states improve parental happiness? It turns out that there is, and quite a bit of it, too. Arnstein Aassve, Stefano Mazzuco and Letizia Mencarini's "Childbearing and Well-Being" from 2005 (abstract here; full text behind a paywall) classified a sampling of countries into four categories based on the size of their welfare states. Social democratic welfare systems (Denmark, Finland, Netherlands) have generous, universal benefits to families; conservative ones (Belgium, France, Austria) tied benefits to occupation and earnings; liberal ones (Great Britain, Ireland) have highly means-tested benefits and rely more on market mechanisms; and Mediterranean ones (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal) have limited public support and rely on families for social assistance.

The researchers then used a measure they call the "deprivation index" to measure well-being. The index takes into account various kinds of hardship (high crime, housing unaffordability, ability to pay bills) that a family can face. Here's how having a child changes the index across welfare state types; keep in mind that a higher deprivation score is a bad thing. Social democratic regimes are least deprived both before and after having children:


Demographers Rachel Margolis and Mikko Myrskylä, in their new paper, "A Global Perspective on Happiness and Fertility" (PDF), take a different tack. They used reported happiness, relying on surveys asking parents in each country whether, “Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, quite happy, somewhat happy or not at all happy?” They use the same welfare regime classifiers as Aassve et. al, adding on developing countries and former Soviet states; their sample size is also much larger (86 countries, with the U.S. classified as a "liberal" regime). They then looked at how each additional child affects parental reported happiness in each regime type, controlling for sex, marital status, income, socioeconomic status, etc. Here are the affects for people ages 20-39; the number of children is on the X axis, and the change in happiness on the Y axis.


Note that having children (as Senior's article goes into at great length) consistently reduces reported happiness with new parents, but, as the researchers state, "the negative association ... is weakest in social democratic and conservative welfare regimes." That is, having a kid will hurt your happiness the least if you're in a country with a social democratic or conservative welfare regime. However, this changes with parents older than 40:


At that age, kids start to make parents happier, but primarily in countries with weak (post-Soviet, Southern European/Mediterranean, developing) welfare states. What's going on here? Margolis and Myrskylä hazard a guess:

Older respondents in both former socialist states and in southern European states were significantly happier with children than those without. These countries have much weaker welfare states than continental or Nordic countries and rely much more on familial support. We did not however, find a significantly positive relationship for developing countries which also have lower state support than social democratic or conservative countries. However, the unrepresentative nature of the samples in developing countries might oversample wealthy and urban respondents and therefore underestimate the degree to which parents need to rely on children for old age support.

In short: It appears likely that parents are getting happier because their children take the place of the welfare state in old age. Parents in social democratic countries always have that support, so having kids does not make much difference.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 6, 2010; 5:39 PM ET
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Well, duh. If the State provides quality childcare, quality education up through University and health care all basically free but with the tax levels that Scandinavians are willing to accept, then much of the burdens of having children fall away, and one can enjoy the expereince without constantly agonizing about the economic costs of childcare, health care and private shcool and college.

Posted by: Mimikatz | July 6, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

"Note that having children (as Senior's article goes into at great length) consistently reduces reported happiness with new parents, but, as the researchers state, "the negative association ... is weakest in social democratic and conservative welfare regimes.""

Now this makes complete sense to me. I love it when social science reinforces my worldview! It's probably more enjoyable than having kids...but then again, what isn't?

Posted by: slag | July 6, 2010 6:41 PM | Report abuse

Asking a 20-something if they're happier with or without the responsibility of taking care of more than themselves and guess what, they say they were happier before! Surprise!

Ask a 40-year old who's watched and guided a developing life, as opposed to completeley focusing on themselves and guess what, they're happier after! Surprise!

Oh, and raising kids is a heck of a lot easier and enjoyable when you're not worried about providing for your and their basic needs.

Posted by: Jaycal | July 6, 2010 8:48 PM | Report abuse

Some one is drunk here to write all this kind of garbage....

As on the thread of this block - you got to account for different samples like India, China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Middle East.

India - grown up children taking care of parents has been the norm traditionally. However, society is moving away from this model and still newly married are content to have kids as well as last I heard Indian Government is not embarking upon starting any Scandinavian style welfare state in India. (In fact latest actions are to remove all sorts of subsidies....)

Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam - Traditional societies with no welfare existing or introduced. What pattern do you see in couples deciding to have how many children?

What about Vietnamese in USA? Invariably solid child raring community.

The most interesting will be with Islamic societies like Turkey, Lebanon and rest of the conservative societies.

Whatever claims are purported with 'welfare, family size and happy parents' all that need to be validated against large number of societies. Then it will place these studies at their rightful place - garbage.

Posted by: umesh409 | July 6, 2010 9:53 PM | Report abuse

I just got back from 9 days in Scandinavia, and I was struck by how much children seem to be valued in society there. I saw children from daycare being wheeled about in bicycle carts, happy as could be. At the Helsinki Architecture Museum, at least two of the examples of exemplary urban architecture were of daycare centers--they put a lot of thought into taking care of children, and it shows.

Even at an exhibit of glass art, one room was devoted to kid-friendly soft sculpture.

A father in Sweden told us how he and/or his wife can take 14 months of paid maternity leave. His son happened to be sick with a minor illness; he took him to the doctor without thinking about payment, as almost everyone in the US, even those with insurance, must do.

I can see how they're happier there than anywhere else, at least during the long daylight months. When your children are well cared for while you work, well educated at school (from age 7, not earlier!), and have access to consistently good medical care, of course parents are happier, despite the fact they may be happier without the worries children bring.

Posted by: KathyF | July 7, 2010 4:21 AM | Report abuse

You guys should stop complaining cuz one the health care we have now isnt as good as it was supposed to be. also the law has just been signed give it a try u guys are too hard on democrats they went to college and we voted for most of these if u want to say u have the right to choose tell that to ur congress men or state official. as for obama people are just tryin to make it look like america made a mistake he has done things to help us and we had a full 8 years of a terrible president and i will be so as happy as ever when a obama fixes bush's mistakes. You can find full medical coverage at the lowest price from obama has to put up with the wo0rld judging his every move and trying to fix the mess we are in we are lucky anyone wants to be our president. STOP COMPLAINING AND GIVE HIM A BREAK. i wanna see one of yall do what he sas done. some people are just so ignorant.

Posted by: fishercruz07 | July 7, 2010 7:03 AM | Report abuse

There might be no challenge in life as difficult as parenting...but there are few challenges that are nearly as rewarding.

It is also something that cannot be explained. It can only be experienced first hand.

The most interesting thing about parenting from a political perspective is that in general childless 20-somethings tend to be more liberal and more Democrat party oriented, but ONCE they become parents they have a tendency to become more conservative and more Republican party oriented.

Guess why!

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | July 7, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

We called one of our twin boys Ezra. He's nothing but trouble.

Posted by: healthobserver | July 7, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

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