Bringing down the 2004 budget on May 11, Federal Treasurer Peter Costello said he hoped every Australian family would have three children - one for the husband, one for the wife and one for the country. To show he was willing to put his money where his mouth was, the treasurer announced a new simplified “Baby Bonus”. Unlike the old payment, which had been complex to calculate and understand, this one could not be simpler: for every new baby, the mother would get $3,000.
There was a small catch. As with most budget announcements, this one did not take effect until the start of the financial year. Only babies born on or after July 1, 2004 qualified for the Baby Bonus. That means that parents who had babies in the intervening period would not receive the new Baby Bonus.
What the government may not have fully anticipated is how expectant parents would respond to these new incentives. These days there is some discretion as to the precise day you have a child. With planned caesareans and inducements, many parents really do get to pick junior’s birthday. If your baby was due in late-May and early June, this wouldn’t really matter. But what about if your child was due at the end of June?
To test the effect, we obtained three decades of daily births data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Since the mid-1970s, the population has grown, but the birthrate has declined, so the number of births per year has stayed pretty constant.
Across the last 10,000 days, one stands out. On July 1, 2004, more babies were born than on any other day in the past 30 years. The day on which the new Baby Bonus took effect might well be called “the Great Australian Birthday”.
Remember, the new Baby Bonus was only announced in May 2004, so it could not have affected conceptions. So the only way it could have had an impact was if parents chose to “move” their child’s birthday from June to July.
Using daily data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare on caesarean sections and inducements, we find that the rate of both procedures increased sharply in July 2004. Not surprisingly, the effect is largest in the final week of June and the first week of July. We estimate that about 700 births were moved by two weeks or less.
But some babies were moved further still. According to our results, the Baby Bonus caused the birth dates of about 300 babies across the country to be moved by more than two weeks. This appears to be troubling; although it may also indicate the considerable latitude that exists around scheduling these procedures.
Regardless, the impact of the 2004 Baby Bonus was considerable disruption for hospitals and expectant mothers that continued through July. Thus, maternity wards would have been placed under considerable stress for essentially a non-medical event. Whether this disruption was worth the government saving about $100 million in payouts is not clear. A comprehensive study on the health effects is yet to be done. But a sudden change in economic incentives from one day to the next is probably not the best way to make policy.
This lesson from history is particularly relevant right now. On July 1, 2006, the Baby Bonus will increase in value from $3,166 to $4,000. While there is less reason for parents to react to this change than there was in 2004, our results suggest that an extra $834 will create a fresh incentive to schedule births in July rather than June.
Maternity hospitals should take this into account when planning staffing and other factors in the next few weeks. Expect fewer babies in the last week of June and more in the first week of July (which may have flow-on effects throughout the month). For parents, consider taking advantage of the quieter time in the last week of June and follow your doctor’s advice on scheduling. In a decade’s time, you’ll be glad you let medical factors take precedence over the Baby Bonus.
And for Peter Costello, now that we know the lessons of history, how about changing how things are done for the next scheduled increase in the Baby Bonus in 2008. Perhaps a gradual rise in the bonus of $50 per month would deliver better results.
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