You are here


Similar Goals, Different Effects

Family policies in the context of low fertility and social structure*
Copyright: Tyler Olson

Studies comparing the impact of family policies in different countries often ignore country differences in social structures. This is surprising given that the literature on fertility has identified social networks as a key mechanism in explaining fertility intentions. Using an agent-based model, Thomas Fent, Belinda Aparicio Diaz and Alexia Prskawetz integrate the role of social effects into a model of fertility decisions and investigate whether, and to what extent, the effectiveness of family policies is affected by the social structure.

The authors distinguish between fixed policies, like income support for all families, and proportional policies that include all means tested transfers and subsidized public care for children. Their simulations show that both types of family policies have positive effects on the total fertility of a generation (completed cohort fertility) as well as on the number of children a woman wants to have (intended fertility). They also reduce the difference between this intention and the actual number of children born. However, whilst proportional policies showed a stronger influence on intended fertility, fixed policies had almost equal effects on all three aspects of fertility explored.


The influence of friends and families

Social networks and social effects are also found to affect fertility: In their models, the mechanism generating the social network of an individual is based on socioeconomic and demographic similarities. Family relations and kinship are also captured, since every agent is linked to her mother and to her children. The network influence operates along two dimensions: the degree to which individuals express their opinions or perform certain types of behavior, and the closeness and strength of a relationship. The authors found that close and strong relations among the network partners appear to have a positive effect on fertility intentions and realizations: increased social pressure from parents, relatives, and friends increases the likelihood that a woman will plan to have another child. In such a context, family policies might have less of an impact.


Social structures influence the effectiveness of policies

Looking at the links between social structure and family policies, the model shows that the increase in intended fertility generated by proportional policies is more sensitive to social effects than the increase in intended fertility generated by fixed policies. But when it comes to the direct effects, the increase of complete cohort fertility and the reduced fertility gap, the changes resulting from fixed policies are more sensitive to social influences than those resulting from proportional policies. Also, in an environment that encourages having children, fixed policies reduce the fertility gap more effectively, while proportional policies increase intended fertility.

The authors conclude that family policies can only be successful if they explicitly take into account the characteristics of the society where they are applied. By neglecting the social structure, results overestimate the impact of fixed policies on completed cohort fertility and on the fertility gap, and underestimate the impact of proportional policies on completed cohort fertility and on intended fertility. Moreover, it leads to an overestimation of the impact of proportional policies on the fertility gap.


This PopDigest is also available in French, Spanish and German.


*This PopDigest has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 320116  for the research project FamiliesAndSocieties.

( has the aim to investigate the diversity of family forms, relationships and life courses in Europe, to assess the compatibility of existing policies with these changes, and to contribute to evidence-based policy-making. The consortium brings together 25 leading universities and research institutes in 15 European countries and three transnational civil society organizations.

Author(s) of the original publication: 
Daniela Vono de Vilhena / Sigrun Matthiesen