During its nine-year existence, Quebec's controversial policy of giving couples cash to have babies was described as many things -- but fruitful was never one of them.
Critics derided the "bébé bonus" as patronizing. Some said governments were playing Santa Claus in exchange for votes. And Quebec's current Minister for the Family, whose government scrapped the bonuses in 1997, called them an abject failure.
But recent studies suggest that offering couples money to procreate works. And during the period Quebec implemented the policy, it brought the province's abysmal birth rate almost in line with the rest of Canada's.
"People respond to incentives," said Kevin Milligan, a University of Toronto economics doctoral candidate who completed a study on Quebec's baby bonus. "If a couple is on the edge, saying 'Should we have a child or not,' this kind of thing would push them over the edge."
Mr. Milligan's study, called Subsidizing the Stork, found that the bonuses had a "strong, positive and robust" impact on Quebeckers' fertility: It grew overall by 12 per cent.
And the bigger the cash offer, the more frequent the trips to the maternity ward -- the $8,000 bonus for a third child drove up fertility 25 per cent, he concluded.
The findings suggest that thousands of Quebec children owe their existence to a government cheque, and that cold calculations play a role in a couple's decision to bring up baby or not.
Pierre Lefebvre, an economics professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal, said similar studies carried out in his department have confirmed the findings.
"There's nothing shocking about this. We have children because they bring us pleasure. We're ready to make sacrifices for that," he said.
"But having a child also involves major direct costs, and that makes some people hesitate. [The baby bonuses]have a positive effect on the birth rate."
Mr. Milligan compared the birth rate in Quebec and the other Canadian provinces, which had no baby bonuses, between 1988 and 1997. During that time, the gap in the birth rates nearly closed. He took into account other influencing factors such as family income and education, and held those factors constant.
The bonuses went from $500 for a first baby up to $8,000 for a third.