What is society?

This weekend’s NY Times Magazine has a fascinating article about plummeting birthrates in Europe – basically, at current trends, European populations will be cut in half by 2050.  But there was a telling quote about differences between Europe and the U.S. from a researcher studying the problem.  He noted that two places that buck the trend of falling birthrates are Scandinavia, where there are large state subsidies for child care and maternity leave, and the U.S., where it is relatively easy to leave and re-enter the workforce. The article’s author writes:

So there would seem to be two models for achieving higher fertility: the neosocialist Scandinavian system and the laissez-faire American one. Aassve put it to me this way: “You might say that in order to promote fertility, your society needs to be generous or flexible. The U.S. isn’t very generous, but it is flexible. Italy is not generous in terms of social services and it’s not flexible. There is also a social stigma in countries like Italy, where it is seen as less socially accepted for women with children to work. In the U.S., that is very accepted.”

This is something I have repeatedly heard in nonprofit circles.  Because there isn’t a government program for a particular something, the “U.S. isn’t very generous.”  Mind you, this is only talking about government programs for child care and maternity leave, not benefits from private companies, low-cost programs from nonprofit organizations, or community programs from churches or other groups.  “Society” is narrowly defined as “the government.”  I think this brief quote speaks volumes about the different cultural assumptions between the U.S. and Europe. 

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