Making babies: Statistically flawed thinking?

In the article, “Our way, not the Nordic way: DPM Wong”, the Deputy Prime Minister dismissed calls for more cash incentives and parental leave to help raise Singapore’s declining birth rate.  (Today, Feb 26)

Mr Wong Kan Seng, described as Singapore’s “population czar” in the report, “pointed to studies that show no conclusive link between improved fertility rates in a country and generous leave policies or state expenditure.”

Perhaps Mr Wong could cite the “studies” he mentioned? Mr Wong gave as examples Sweden and Germany to substantiate his point. While the two countries spent 3 and 2.8 per cent of GDP on family support, their Total Fertility Rate (TFR) are 1.9 and 1.4 respectively.

While these may be below the replacement rate of 2.1, these figures are nonetheless higher than Singapore’s 1.16.  The examples of Germany and Sweden may thus show that spending more of the GDP on family support may indeed contribute to an increase in their birth rates.

How much does Singapore spend as a percentage of GDP?

Shouldn’t we be focusing on the outcome for Singapore, and try to learn from the positive experiences and statistics of other countries, rather than dismissing such family-friendly policies out-of-hand?

What may interest the Singapore Government, and Mr Wong,  is that the Nordic countries’ incentives, as I understand it, are basically unbiased with regards  to income and education.

In contrast, some of Singapore’s procreation policies are skewed in favour of the higher income and higher educated, such as:

Tax rebate and relief which benefit the higher income more. More than 60 per cent of Singaporeans do not pay income tax, which obviously include the low-income earners.

Matching grant for Child Development Accounts. Poor and lower-income families may not even have enough to survive on a daily basis, so how will they be able to  come up with the cash to top-up the accounts and enjoy the “matching grants”?

Childcare and kindergarten subsidies which never seem to be able to catch up with increasing childcare and kindergarten fees and related costs.

In addition, the notion that giving more financial incentives to the higher income and educated may be “statistically” flawed. Statistics have always indicated that the lower-income and lower-educated are the ones who tend to procreate more.

If you are lower-income, the benefits may make a world of difference. But, if you are highly paid, how much more motivation is there for you to procreate by dangling more financial incentives?

So, perhaps we should learn more from the Nordic countries and other countries, by giving the same procreation benefits, regardless of income or education.

Mr Wong highlighted singlehood as the one issue which “has the greatest impact on our TFR.” Compared to the Nordic countries, where there is “social acceptance” of babies born out of wedlock,  Mr Wong says such acceptance is not still part of Singapore society.

I feel that what is perhaps more important is to focus on the outcome for the children, rather than whether one is married or not. Also, co-habitating couples may “go on to marry after a child is born”.

From a statistical perspective, there may be no causal relationship between higher TFR and the phenomena of babies born out of wedlock. In other words, there may be no statistical basis to say that the higher TFRs was due significantly to the society’s norms of human relationships.

So, let me put it another way. Will Singapore  spend more like the Nordic countries  only when our society accepts single parenthood, in order to raise the TFR?

I believe Singaporeans in general do not discriminate against children whose mothers are unwed. Rather it is government policies on maternity leave, financial assistance, etc, that may be discriminatory.

I think without a doubt, a child in a poor or lower-income family in Singapore today may arguably be worse off than a child of any family in the Nordic countries – whether his parents are wed, unwed, co-habitate or “wed after”.

To say that “it’s clear the problem of the TFR… lies in the rising trend of singlehood” may be another example of a flawed “statistical” causal relationship premise. There are many countries with this trend, but not the corresponding outcome of having one of the lowest TFR in the world like Singapore.

Spending peanuts to make babies?

We have been increasing our TFR package from $500 million in 2001, to $800 million in 2004, and $1.6 billion three years ago.

But, at $1.6 billion, it may still be less than half a per cent of GDP, compared to Sweden and Germany’s 3 and 2.8 per cent.

Selective “statistical denial”?

Mr Wong then cited Taiwan’s example to debunk the claim that leave policies have an impact on the TFR.

“Despite offering generous paid leave,” the Today report says, “Taiwan has the world’s lowest TFR at 0.91. Conversely, even though the United States government offers no paid leave, the country has a high TFR of around 2.1, the replacement rate”.

This is again a flawed argument.

There may be various reasons for the different birth rates between Taiwan and the United States. For example, Americans work much shorter hours than the Taiwanese and Singaporeans. This may have an impact on procreation. So, to selectively pick certain countries, citing just one factor as the conclusion that it may not work in Singapore, is at best “poor” statistical reasoning.

If the “population czar” in charge of improving our procreation keeps citing arguably “statistically” ïndefensible conclusions, is it any wonder our procreation policies keep failing?