In "Fertility Transition in the Middle East: The Case of the Israeli-Arabs," Israel Affairs, Autumn/Winter 2003, pp. 39-67, Onn Winckler of Haifa University looks at the Israeli government's pro-natalist policy and its implications.
The government subsidizes large families, he explains, to maintain a Jewish preponderance in the Jewish state and to increase the number of Jews in the world.
Over time, however, the impact of these subsidies have been increasingly felt among Israel's Muslim citizens, whose very high population growth Winckler in part attributes to the ever-growing subsidy they have received from the Israeli government for having many children.
This sum has increased for two reasons: (1) Before 1997, those who did not serve in the army received lesser amounts than those who did (a way to single out Jewish parents for higher benefits) but for six years now, the amounts have been equalized. (2) The amount of the state subsidy has gone through the roof; for example, the sum received for six children in 1960 was 8 percent of the average income of salaried workers; by 2001, it had reached 43 percent of that average income. For prolific parents, child-rearing can replace gainful employment; in 2001, Winckler reports, "the monthly children's allowance for seven children was $930, much above the minimum wage in Israel, which was approximately $770."
These large sums, Winckler explains, had "a major role in maintaining the high fertility levels among large segments of the Israeli-Muslim population, particularly during the past decade." Put more concretely: "the overall economic condition of a poor family with six children and above in much better than that of a poor family with only two or three children."
As one might expect, the natal subsidy has most impact among the poorest elements of Israeli society; indeed, Winckler finds, "high fertility rates among the lowest classes, both Jews and Arabs, function as a major tool for economic survival." And who are those economic "lowest classes"? They happen to number three: ultra-Orthodox Jews, Muslims in eastern Jerusalem, and Bedouin in the Negev desert. They also happen - and here the law of unintended consequences rears its head - to be the three least Zionist communities in the country. (August 3, 2003)
Nov. 17, 2004 update: The results may be skewed but the pro-natalist policy as a whole is working. A report on the status of women in Israel in 2004 by the Israel Women's Network finds that Israeli women have the highest number of children in the entire Western world. The Israeli average is 2.9 compared to 2.0 in the United States and about 1.4 in Western Europe.
June 18, 2006 update: "Big drop in Israeli Arab fertility rates" reads Ha'aretz' headline, using Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics to note a decline in one of the highest birth rates in the world.
The fertility rate among Israel's Muslims was more than nine children in the 1960s. By 1985, it had dropped to 4.7 children, and then remained at this level for the next 15 years. Over the past five years, the decline resumed, with the fertility rate dropping 8 percent - from 4.74 children per Muslim woman in 2000 to 4.36 in 2004. During the same period, the fertility rate for Jewish women rose slightly, from 2.66 to 2.71. Another relevant figure is the number of births per thousand. Among the Jewish population, the number of births per thousand rose from 18.7 in 2000 to 19.2 in 2004. In contrast, the number of births per thousand among the Muslim population plummeted during the same period, from 37.5 to 33.2 - a drop of 11 percent.
Sep. 13, 2007 update: For a further update, see "Unintended Consequences" at The Happy Arab News Service website, which looks in particular at the demographic implications of Binyamin Netanyahu's financial reforms.
Dec. 16, 2009 update: A Bank of Israel study reviewing the 1994-2007 period finds that economic assistance to families increased fertility primarily among the Arab and Haredi households with more than three children.
According to the study, the abolition of child allowances would result in an overall decline in fertility among Haredi women of about 0.2 children (one less child in one in five families) and 0.4 children among Bedouin woman in the south (two fewer children in one in five families. Overall fertility among Druze women and non-Haredi Jewish women would remain unchanged.
Overall fertility declined during the period of the study, except among non-Haredi Jews). The reduction in child allowances between 2004 and 2007 explains a significant part of the decline among Arab women and a small part of the decline among Haredi women. The allowance cuts generally had a greater effect on older women, those who already had many children, those in low-income families and women who themselves grew up in large families.