Having a family in Europe

November 27, 2006 | 16 comments

My husband sent an article to our English friend that proposed that the declining birthrates in Europe were due to “anti-natalism”. I thought his reply was interesting, and somewhat depressing.

Hmm, interesting. But maybe the problem is slightly different here, because we’re all rather poorer than our American cousins.

If, for example, a young couple gets married, and borrow money from the bank to buy their first home, a one bedroomed apartment, which’ll cost them perhaps £200k, the bank uses ‘the multiplier’.

Which varies, but essentially it means they take their combined salaries, and multiply by perhaps four. So, if a couple of bright graduates earn, say, £15k pa each (of which maybe they take home £8k pa each) which is a typical graduate’s starting salary, that makes £120, 000 which is the maximum they can borrow. So they put £80, 000 down as a deposit (maybe cadged from their parents) and pay around £1000 a month repayments, maybe three quarters of their joint nett income.

But then the young wife falls pregnant, she can’t work, and they’re down to one income, and fall behind with payments. They default on the loan, the house is repossessed and sold off at auction by the bank for maybe half its market value. The bank doesn’t care because they have insurance to cover the difference (premiums paid by borrowers, who don’t see the benefit) and the bank just wants a super fast resolution. The bank wins again, and the borrowers still have to make up the shortfall, plus costs. So maybe now they owe the bank £100k plus their arrears, and their parents the £80, 000 deposit. This on top of their government student loans, which’ll be £50k.

I waited ’til I was old and reasonably financially secure before I thought about all that stuff. In fact, when I was younger, I made the definite decision not to have children. But, accidents sometimes happen, with the exuberance of youth, and youngsters find themselves in dire financial straits, through no fault of their own, other than inexperience and lack of planning.

There is hope is this sorry tale nowadays. If the price of their property goes up quickly enough, they just might come out even. But if there’s a slump, like there was here around 1990 when prices dropped around 25%, then it’s throw yourself off the bridge time, because you’ll have the dreaded ‘negative equity’, and the bank’s into you for life. You can never earn enough to pay off the interest. In the 90s people were just packing up, putting their house keys through the bank’s letterbox, then going missing.

That’s the real price of having children young. Devastating not just for the mother. And that’s why the populations of all western European countries is going down fast, even in Catholic countries.

Children are OK for grey haired company directors, but not for youngsters. Best time to have children is when you’re 75. But then you die, and the kids have to pick up your death taxes rather earlier.

It sounds like, financially, it would be practically impossible to have more than one or two kids in Europe unless you’re rich. I’m not well-versed on this issue though. Anyone have any thoughts?


  1. Anonymous

    When buying our own home my husband and and I already had our daughter and I wasn’t working at that moment as I just finished school so we based it only on one income. Our home, especially in Massachusetts, isn’t anything to brag about but we have a great sense of security in being open to life knowing we can always afford the mortgage and we don’t have to decide on having another child or losing the house. It is also nice because once I go back to work all my income will be merely supplimental not for survivial.

  2. RobK

    I am sorry, but the financial arguement for not having children sounds like a cop out to me. What it boils down to is that financial security is more important than human beings (the potential ones that are forgone). It reflects the values of Europe, and unfortunately much of the US as well.

  3. Bekah

    I am incredulous that everywhere across Europed housing costs are that high. Just as in the US, some areas are pricey, some are not. One needs to decide where one’s values lie, with life or with possessions, and make residence decisions accordingly. Strange, isn’t it, that living a Catholic life may require sacrifice? 😉

  4. SteveG

    It doesn’t really answer you husbands point though. It just shows that the entire culture is anti-natalistic as they’ve established a society/system that is so hostile to family life.

  5. Darwin

    I suppose the interesting question would be, what are the Pakistani and Indian immigrants who _are_ having a lot of children in England doing differently from the native Brits that makes having children seem feasible to them, but not to the natives? I would guess that it has to do with how you define a reasonable lifestyle.

    The other thing to notice, however, is a difference in economic policy between Blair’s England and the current US. If it’s true that you only take home 8k out of a 15k starting income, that suggests that the tax burden on lower income workers is much higher than here. In the US, you get hit with social security and medicare as a low income earner, but you actualy make money back on your federal taxes, especially if you have kids. So your effecive take home rate is perhaps 80%, not 55%, and I’ve got to think that makes a big difference.

  6. Martin

    I agree with the others. It all depends where one puts their priority ….. where someone choses to live versus having more children.

  7. Anonymous

    I guess I would like to hear more from people who actually live in Europe. It IS easy for us who have relatively affluent lifestyles (I consider most middle-class Americans to live affluently when compared to most of the rest of the world) to sit in judgment on those living in countries where this kind of lifestyle might not be so easy to maintain.

    How many of us are really willing to give up home ownership (as well as the choice of WHERE we want to live and raise our families), educational opportunties for our children, cars, phones, internet, good food and wine, decent healthcare choices for our families, etc, etc, etc? Not knowing myself how it really is in Europe, I honestly don’t know what kinds of sacrifices it might require to raise a family of many children over there.

    Don’t get me wrong–I’m not against large families and have six children of my own. But I don’t take for granted for one minute that we live in an atmosphere of luxury and affluence compared to most of the rest of the world. I just think it’s easy for us to sit around pointing fingers at other societies when we have no idea what kind of sacrifices they may actually be facing.

  8. Tim

    Well, that scenario seems to depressing for reality. I know that European economies are blighted with many forms of socialism but I don’t think the problem is that bad. I sense the writer is prejudiced against having children and is deliberately painting a gloomy and inaccurate picture….

  9. knit_tgz

    Well, European here, though I’m from a different country (Portugal) with a different context.

    I am writing a lot, so I will divide this in two parts: 1) Why I disagree partially with the English person’s opinion. 2) Why I partially agree.

    ——– Part 1 ———

    I partially disagree with this person for the same reasons I partially agree with some of the previous commenters. Indeed “the financial arguement for not having children” is, in my opinion, far overused over here. In fact, most people nowadays have irrealistic expectations of what financial security is needed to be a parent. Most people believe that, in order to be good parents, they have to afford a lot of toys, a car seat and a pram, and expensive diapers, and clothing, and a room with expensive child furniture and a lot of things which were not needed to raise a child when I was born. In fact, by today’s standards, my generation (the ones born in the 1970’s) was mostly raised by parents who “were too poor to have children”. Also, a lot of people believe that two children “cost” twice as much as one child, and three children cost three times as much as one child, which simply is not true. A lot of young adults are not too selfish to have children, they simply believe the lie that children need all those things to grow up happy and adjusted. When I was a child, it was normal to wear hand-me-downs, and in fact my mother has given away to friends, co-workers and even people she did not know that well almost all our expensive items like the pram, the car seat, most childhood clothes (some of them, even after being worn by me and my brother, who of course did not wear my dresses or skirts, but wore my sweaters and a lot of my shoes)… Over here in Portugal, we had a colonial war in Africa until 1974, so when the revolution occurred and the young men came back, a lot of couples finally got married and we had a mini-baby-boom at that time. A lot of couples started raising their children with not so much as real furniture. And we turned out fine, really. Of course, eceonomic improvement was/is a wonderful thing, but people should learn to see what is NEEDED and what is only NICE, but not NECESSARY.

    It is true that some people cannot really afford to have children (more on that on Part 2), but it is also true that most people are irrealistic on what children really need. Parents, nowadays, believe children need a lot of THINGS that we did not need when we were children. I cannot really afford to have a child now (as I am single, that’s not the main reason why I am childless now, of course), as I can only afford to rent a room in a shared old flat (I share with 2 or 3 other girls), but if I got pregnant (either by rape or by plain old unchastity), I would find a way to raise the child (I would get a full time job, even if it were as a waitress).

    I guess part of the problem is that most young adults nowadays have NOT grown up surrounded by younger children (no siblings or only one sibling very close in age), so instead of having seen, when they were 12, 13, 14, what a 2 year-old really needs, they haven’t. And they believe children really are those expensive princes and princesses we see on TV. Spoiled and surrounded with material possessions. Just like our young adults.

  10. knit_tgz

    —- Part 2 ——

    Or why I partially agree with the English writer.

    As SteveG intelligently pointed, here in Europe, at least in the European countries I know best, the entire culture is anti-natalistic as they’ve established a society/system that is so hostile to family life.

    I am very sorry (oh, my God, how this hurts me personally) to say this is true. Our society has evolved to a form where people are strongly discouraged from having children. Much more than in the USA.

    I have never been to the USA. What I know now is from friends who are studying over there, and from what I see on blogs. From this information, I have concluded there are several important differences, comparing life in the USA and life here in Portugal.

    1) The housing market is very very different .
    When I see house photos in blogs, I see your houses are much bigger than our houses. Also, it is possible to rent a house and renting a house is not as expensive as buying one. (over here, the renting market, because of years of frozen rents, is composed of old renters who pay ridiculous small rents, and new renters who have to pay really expensive rents, so that the landlords can compensate the small old rents). So, we have the ridiculous situation that if you buy a house you pay a monthly amount to the bank which is 30%, 40%, sometimes 50% SMALLER than if you rented the house. Also, I see that in the USA a lot of people live in houses with gardens, while over here most people live in suburban building dormitories.

    2) Going to live in a less expensive area is not really an option.
    At least here in Portugal, our country is divided in two parts: the urban country, where there are jobs, and the rural country, where there are no jobs. Of course, in the rural country there is space to build a nice house, and houses are not so expensive as in the city. But unless you are one of the lucky few who can actually get a job in the rural country, there’s no use in going there. Our rural areas were drained of people by decades of bad government and worse planning, and nowadays it is a vicious circle: as not enough people live there, the government closes hospitals, schools, maternities, so the few people who still live there have less places to work and move away. Of course, in the rare rural places where the local autorities and population (private initiative is not strong over here nowadays, alas, as people are very disillusioned and depressed) do succeed in creating jobs and riches and preventing the desertification, immediately the housing speculation starts making house prices go up. Which leads us to problem3.

    3) Construction businesses and banks live their business as mafias, not as businesses in a free market with normal competition.
    This can seem a severe accusation for a person (a Catholic!) to do. But let me explain. I don’t mean they kill or maim opponents. What I do mean is that instead of prices fluctuating up and down as normal demand and supply laws would predict, housing prices keep going straight up (and fast!) since 1985 (when mortgages started becoming usual). And banks, all banks, have the life of people who borrow in their hands, as their conditions, too, become worse as years pass. But especially construction businesses, which make prices rise everywhere (not just in fashionable, chic, places, but everywhere), who don’t mind having tens of thousands of houses unsold for YEARS, while keeping them at insane prices, because they know someday people will buy them, even if they have to get a mortgage until they are 80. There’s no competition between them, they are like cartels. And in a lot of places, local authorities actually feel glad that housing prices are high, as a lot of their financing comes from housing taxes, which are proportional to housing costs. So, municipalities agree with insane construction plans, where a lot of big buildings are built without places for people to be in (without gardens, without playgrounds, sometimes without medical centers). The ugly dormitories where people live depressed in really small flats in big buildings. Which leads us to problem 4.

    4) It’s not safe any longer to leave a kid play outside with other kids.
    When I was a child, children were not involved in a lot of activities. Paid activities. Some parents could afford one activity (dance, ballet, language lessons) but that was it. Other parents could not afford them (like mine). Children were at school, then went home, did their homework and went to play with other children. Somewhere around their houses, their street. Nowadays parents are afraid. So, they have to keep their children surrounded by activities. So, they spend more. And on the other hand, children, deprived of physical activities where they could spend their energy, become irritable and bratty. And demanding. And need more things to calm down. And become expensive. Which leads us to problem 5.

    5) Mothers/Fathers cannot afford to stay home.
    At least, not in my country. Portugal is the European country where more women (percentually) work full time. Not because of some “liberation”. Simply because people are yoked in servitude to their bank.

    6) darwin pointed out that maybe taxes are different here too.
    I don’t know how are taxes in the USA. Over here in Portugal, it depends on your earnings. But darwin wrote “In the US, you get hit with social security and medicare as a low income earner, but you actualy make money back on your federal taxes, especially if you have kids.” Hmmm, this seems to mean taxes ARE very different over there. Let’s see: I am in the lower tax division, which means my liquid salary is 90% of my initial salary (more than half of which I spend in paying my room). I don’t have to pay any more taxes (I told you I was poor), BUT I cannot make any deduction, which means I never receive anything back from taxes. Tax, for normal people (not poor) is usually something from 20-40%. There are deductions allowed for children, for education, and for housing costs, BUT they are ridiculously small. And our VAT (direct tax over bought products) has gone up to 21% 🙁

    7) Trade unions used to defend the poorer and younger workers from exploitation, but they don’t do that any longer.
    Trade unions are made of middle-agers who now have nice secure jobs that they got in the beginning of the 80’s, when everybody thought money was elastic, and they fight for the rights they have conquered, which a lot of times conflict with the needs of the younger, unemployed or in short-term jobs, having to search for a new job every 6 to 12 months.

    The perspectives ARE gloomy. Our society has become hostile to family. Still, some people build families. And some people (like me) would raise a family (if only I got married…). How?

    —– continues —–

  11. knit_tgz

    —– Part 3 ——

    Who still builds a family in Europe?

    1) Immigrants. Coming from poorer countries, they don’t believe children need all those things to be happy.

    2) Some rich people, who can afford to spoil their children (but sometimes choose not to spoil them, fortunately).

    3) Some people who thought about it and decided they should not let fear rule their life, and decided to go for it. Even though it may mean your kids will not have all those things the media say they need. Even though you will have to live in a smaller and older house. Enven though you will not afford a new car. Even though you will not afford a lot of clothing.

    4) People who decide to put their trust in God.

    5) People who simply did not think. Which can be a bad thing, but can also be a good thing.

    I believe I am a bit of 3) and a bit of 4). I don’t want to have a nice, pretty, new house with coordinating furniture. (It would be nice, though, but I don’t need it). I want to have 4 or 5 kids running around (in hand-me-downs, probably) laughing and playing with each other. (If I had a husband, of course, as a single woman I can only wait).

    I cannot believe we will extinguish ourselves in Europe. I cannot be the only woman who yearns for a big family over here. A society without children is a society without hope. But I am sure hope will return to Europe.

  12. Anonymous


    Thanks so much for the detailed explanation. I do have a couple of questions for you (hope you don’t mind!). First of all, my husband is under the impression that many European countries are actually paying their citizens to have more children. Is this true in Portugal? It does seem like I have heard of incentives being paid for having kids in some of the countries where the population is rapidly declining, but to be honest I haven’t really paid much attention to it.

    Secondly, would your financial situation keep you from marrying if you found the right person but he didn’t make enough to support a family over there? I hope that’s not too personal a question, but I recently read a piece somewhere in the Catholic blogosphere about the fact that in past centuries, many people remained single because of the inability to financially support a family. I don’t know what, if anything, to make of it—it was written by somebody who was arguing that contrary to public opinion these days, in the era prior to widely-available contraception, people weren’t popping out herds of children they couldn’t afford. Instead, they just weren’t getting married if they couldn’t afford a family. I found it interesting, but I’m not sure how that plays into Catholic beliefs about vocations to the married life.

    Do you feel that the fear of allowing children to play outside is based in any kind of reality where you live? We have that same fear here in the US, and I really feel strongly that it is contributing to a lot of social unhealthiness (kids playing video games all the time because their parents feel safer with them inside) as well as physical unhealthiness (the obesity problem here in the US is getting worse by the year). I personally feel that children are no more unsafe these days than they were in past centuries (let’s face it, children have always been preyed upon because there are always those who are strong who will take advantage of those who are weak, human nature being what it is). Sorry for the rambling.

    Finally, I want to ask if the ethnicities who choose to have large families over there have a different attitude about governmental responsibility when it comes to caring for a family? Maybe I should ask if everyone over there has a different attitude about that compared to us Americans? Many of us here in the US are very independently-minded and feel strongly that we don’t want to be living off the government “dole”. I get the impression that many immigrants (and I certainly do NOT mean to make any sweeeping generalizations about any certain group of people, this is just an observation some of us here in the US have made) don’t have the same views and don’t have any “pride” problems in availing themselves of government help when it comes to having a lot of children. Does this apply in your country?

    It’s not just immigrants, either. We know of Catholic families who continue to have a child every year or two but who are on food stamps, WIC, fuel assistance, medicaid, etc. They honestly feel that the government SHOULD be helping them out, because they are doing God’s Will, not to mention they are homeschooling and therefore not using our tax funds for the education of their children. This kind of attitude (whether by immigrants or regular citizens) creates some hard feelings among other parts of society that feel that it’s THEIR hard-earned tax money being used to pay for other people’s lifestyle choices.

    Again, I hope you don’t mind me asking these questions. I just find the whole subject quite fascinating, in no small part because we have six kids ourselves. I enjoy hearing about demographics and general societal attitudes in other parts of the world.

  13. knit_tgz

    Hi, Anonymous.

    I’ll try to answer. Keep in mind that everything I write is from my own experience and knowledge, and I’m not an expert on the field. So, my view may be biased or incomplete.

    1) “First of all, my husband is under the impression that many European countries are actually paying their citizens to have more children. Is this true in Portugal?”
    Not in Portugal. It is true in other countries (as far as I know, France and Scandinavian countries, but I may be wrong, you should check), but not here. I checked online, and the only thing that exists here is the “abono de familia”, a subsidy you receive monthly per kid. This subsidy depends on how much you earn (the more you earn, the less you receive), but the maximum amount you can receive per kid older than 1 year old, monthly, is 30 euros. So you can have an idea, the monthly rent for my room in an old house, needing some small repairs, shared, is 200 euros. In a less expensive city, it would be around 150 euros, but not much less, unless you found a real bargain. For babies (younger than 12 months old), you can receive a maximum of 120 euros, monthly. This is the only financial incentive we receive in Portugal to have more children.

    2) “Secondly, would your financial situation keep you from marrying if you found the right person but he didn’t make enough to support a family over there?” That’s hard to answer. I am almost 30, so I’m deeply aware that time is slipping through my hands. I would feel inclined to take the risk and get married (if he was willing to take that risk, of course), even though it would be a huge leap of faith. I am OK with the idea of having a small, cheap, homemade wedding, and ever since I live in a room in an old house I found that you can be happy (happier, even, sometimes) in a small, unpretty, old house. And that there’s nothing better than being surrounded by people who love you. But this is me. I’m a bit crazy… Most men will not propose if they feel they cannot provide enough. So, most men my age don’t propose. (On a personal note, my boyfriend does not make enough to support a family. That’s not the reason why we are not engaged, as we started dating not very long ago, but if in some months we find out we really are compatible, I’m afraid money will be a reason for conflict, as I sincerely believe it is possible to start a family on just a bit more than our combined earnings, and he believes people should wait until they get more financial security [we have already discussed the possibility]. Time will tell).

    I believe that people would remain single if they felt they could not provide FOOD for their children. I can understand that, and in fact I would not want to get married if I would make my future kids starve. I just think nowadays people define “provide” in a very different way…

    3) “Do you feel that the fear of allowing children to play outside is based in any kind of reality where you live?”
    I don’t know. I am the one who is not afraid of walking alone at night in the city, while everyone else is afraid, so maybe I’m just a bit less afraid than normal… I don’t think I’m irresponsible, I simply choose not-so-dangerous paths.

    I, like you, feel that children are no more unsafe these days than they were in past centuries. But a lot of people disagree. I don’t know.

    4) Finally, I want to ask if the ethnicities who choose to have large families over there have a different attitude about governmental responsibility when it comes to caring for a family?
    I don’t know. We don’t have many Muslims over here (they prefer going to Spain, I’m not sure why). Gipsies live a very different living and I don’t think they like to depend on the government, but I don’t know. Black people only have large families when they’re first generation, the second generation behaves sexually like white people of the same social group. Poor people, especially in degraded areas, still have large families, which unfortunately no longer are poor but structured families. Nowadays, it’s mostly monoparental families. We have several kinds of poor people here: the ones who really have some health problem and cannot work, so they really must depend on exterior help; the ones who can work but do not want to (unfortunately some people are like that); the ones who had some type of bad luck and only need a couple of months of help to get on their feet again. Here it is not a good business to have kids if you’re poor.

    On ethnicities, there’s one specific country from which lots of people came as illegal immigrants to beg on the street as women with a baby or to send their children to beg. Local priests approached the women and the men, offering to get them jobs and help them get legalized, but the women and men refused. But it’s only people from that specific country.

    On people who like to live on government financial help, yes, there are some people like that. More than in the USA? I don’t know. What I do know is that there are easier ways to live off the government helps than to have many children, over here. In other European countries, as far as I know, there are “welfare mothers”. Here, I don’t think so.

  14. Anonymous

    I know moving from one’s orginal place of birth is easier now then years ago. But living in Massachusetts where all of your family and cultural roots are is very difficult, right now we have a lot of snob zoning. Towns want larger lot for homes, and they don’t want young families with children to burden the school system. All the investment is in senior centers, and not in playgrounds and schools.

  15. Anonymous

    I know this is a really old post, but am a newcomer to your blog and can’t resist a comment!

    I’m an American living in London with my English husband and our toddler and baby on the way.

    The economics of family life is precisely why we are moving back to the US when our second child is born.

    I am a lawyer and my husband is an in house tax person for an investment bank and we both work full time and still do not have enough money to put a deposit on a house (and satisfy our student loan obligations).

    If we move to the US, I can be a stay at home mom and we will be able to buy a house. Most importantly, we will not have an economic imperative to limit the size of our family, which is important to me. I want to be able to have as many children as God gives us and we feel we can take care of, without using artificial birth control. Moving out of England will make that possible for our family.

  16. Anonymous

    Yet another late comer here… sorry, I’m reading through your entire archive right now and working my way from TRA times to the present.

    I’m German, living in Switzerland, and I have twins on the way 🙂

    In Germany, money is not a problem. It’s an excuse. Nobody starves in the streets, and the social safety net is utterly sufficient to raise children (maybe without luxuries). The problem is that people don’t want children and the inconvenience they cause (“Gaah! My career is down the drain!”).

    For instance, in Germany you get around 215 USD per month for the first, second and third Child under 18, 250 USD for each kid beyond that. In addition, you are eligible for rent assistance, subsidized housing etc. Your landlord basically can’t evict you with small children (which is why nobody wants to rent to young families, a classic case of unintended consequences – but there is always quite sufficient social housing). If you work a low-wage job, your health insurance automatically covers spouse and all children. And so on.

    No, the problem in Europe is that we have lost the will to live as a civilization. We are dying from ennui.

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