How can countries such as America and China raise birth rates?

Governments with ageing populations struggle to encourage people to have babies | The Economist explains

5/11/2021 4:52:00 PM

Census data show China has its slowest population growth in decades. In April we explained why low birth rates put more pressure on the Communist Party to abandon all its birth-control policies

Governments with ageing populations struggle to encourage people to have babies | The Economist explains

THE WORLD’S population will rise from around 7.9bn today to 9.7bn by 2050, according to the United Nations. But this growth is distributed unevenly. On May 5th federal figures showed that births in America dropped by 4% in 2020 compared with a year before, to 3.61m (the lowest number since 1979). And a week earlier the

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Financial Timesreported that China’s census will show that its population has fallen below 1.4bn, lower than a year ago andthe first fall since records beganin 1949. The government denied it, but a Communist Party newspaper admitted that a decline is likely by next year. No European country is having enough babies to keep its population stable, which would require each woman to have an average of 2.1 children. In the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, the birth rate is 1.6. Fertility rates are similarly low in rich parts of east Asia, such as South Korea, and declining in parts of Latin America and the Middle East. Japan, meanwhile, last year recorded fewer births than ever. Education, which encourages women to put off having children in order to work, and the cost of raising a family largely explain why. The covid-19 pandemic

may have made the problem worse. This creates headaches for governments, including slow economic growth and a bigger proportion of old people for the state to support. As a result, many are trying to buck the trend, with varying degrees of success.Clumsy approaches can backfire. In Italy, an advertising campaign that warned women their biological clocks were ticking was withdrawn in 2016 after complaints. Carrots are more common than sticks but can be expensive. Poland, for example, gives parents 500 zloty ($135) a month for each child after their second until their offspring reach 18 years old. When the policy was introduced in 2016, that amounted to 12% of the average annual wage. Russian families receive a one-off payment of more than 466,000 roubles ($6,270) when their second child is born, to be spent on housing, education or the mother’s pension. Some countries have seen modest increases in fertility after providing cash, but by doing so, governments may be reinforcing the idea that parenthood is hard without state assistance, says Wendy Sigle of the London School of Economics. headtopics.com

More sustainable approaches involve helping women to have both a career and children. This means subsidising child care, extending school hours, increasing parental leave and encouraging flexible office hours. Germanyhas had some successin raising its birth rate through generous parental-leave laws and giving infants a right to nursery places. Employers must also be willing to hire and promote mothers and create family-friendly working environments. And as would-be parents age, more countries may consider subsidising in-vitro fertilisation or even egg-freezing to help older women conceive. In Denmark, women under 40 can have three courses of state-funded IVF. A tenth of Danish babies are now conceived with the help of reproductive technology, the highest proportion in the world. Last year, Hungary nationalised IVF clinics to try to increase births.

But boosting births through government policies remains difficult. In Norway, despite family-friendly work hours and extensive welfare, the birth rate is falling. Some factors, such as relationship breakdowns or cultural attitudes to parenthood, remain outside government control. If rich countries cannot raise their birth rates, they will need to consider other solutions. Greater openness to migrants, who are normally of working age when they arrive, could ease the problem. China is unlikely to welcome them in large numbers. Low birth rates will put more pressure on the Communist Party to abandon its birth-control policies (families can still be fined for having more than two babies.) Another alternative is raising the age of retirement, but that would be deeply unpopular.

Editor’s note (May 5th 2021): Read more: The Economist »

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