In 2014 in Fourni, Greece, not one single baby was born. The same was true in 2015. In 2012, only one child was born in the town of Lestijärvi, Finland.
What is happening in these countries is not an anomaly. Countries throughout Europe are seeing population declines that their governments are trying desperately to reverse. In fact, many governments, and even companies, are now offering incentives for families to have more babies. These pronatalist policies—policies or practices that “encourage the bearing of children”—are becoming increasingly prevalent as countries battle declining birthrates and an aging population.
We know that babies are an incredible blessing. However, not all people believe or understand that. It seems our world is divided between people who want to restrict the number of births and people who see the value in every baby.
Antinatalism is the belief that humans should stop procreating. Some people believe that, for economic, environmental, or social reasons, humans should cease to exist. Further, they see the suffering that humans sometimes go through as useless. They believe it should be avoided at all costs.
For various reasons, other groups want to reduce population and limit family size. The most predominant among these reasons is the environment. In a recent article on population control, HLI’s Brian Clowes, PhD, wrote that many countries have taken drastic measures. He states: “We have witnessed forced abortion and sterilization programs in China, Vietnam, Peru and many other countries, partly in support of programs to preserve the environment. There have been vast numbers of women sterilized or fitted with IUDs without their knowledge or consent for the same reason.”
But now countries are starting to see the inherent flaws in their anti-baby reasoning. Birth rates are far below replacement level in many countries. “Replacement level” is the birth rate needed to replace a population from one generation to the next. This is usually calculated as 2.1 in developing countries. According to the Institute for Family Studies, nearly half of the world’s population lives in countries with levels below this.
Why is this problematic?
In order to thrive, countries must stay at or above replacement levels. In developed countries where the birth rate is low, the population of elderly people is rising faster than the number of births. Thus, there are not enough people to replace the elderly in the workforce. And there are too few people to take care of them. In addition, in countries like China, where its now-rescinded one-child policy was in effect for many years, there is a shortage of women, as families either aborted or abandoned their baby girls.
A July 2020 Business Insider article echoes the fear of population decline:
A new report published . . . from researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicts the population is expected to begin declining by 2100 in nearly every country around the world.
The new study looked at population projections up to the year 2100 for 195 countries. According to their findings, some countries are even expected to see their populations cut in half. . . .
The researchers estimated that by 2100, the average fertility rate is predicted to be around 1.7 children per woman, well below the 2.1 children needed to maintain a stable population over time.
The Business Insider report goes on to list 20 of the fastest-shrinking countries in the world. These include Italy, Cuba, and Portugal, each with about a 10% drop expected in the next 30 years. Romania, Japan, Croatia, and Serbia all have about a 15 – 20% drop projected. Bulgaria ranks number one on the list. It has nearly a 23% drop in population projected by 2050.
In addition, a March 2020 Institute for Family Studies article states that the birth rate in America has fallen to its lowest level ever.
So how do we rectify the situation? How do we, as a global community, encourage people to have babies? And how do we support growing families?
First, we must become a global society that values babies as human beings not as commodities. Part of valuing them is caring for them before they are born and after. This value extends to their parents as well.
As St. John Paul II said in a 1986 homily: “As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.”
Some countries have begun incentive programs to encourage people to have more children. And, in many of these countries, the incentives include much more than money. They include time.
In the 1960s and 1970s South Korea’s government pushed its women to have two or fewer children. Since then, and despite recent incentives, its fertility rate has been below 1. This is one of the lowest in the world. The country has spent more than $180 billion over the last 10 years to encourage people to increase family size. Even some companies have stepped in to help:
- Posco gives two choices to its women employees who have just had a baby: they can choose between a year of paid leave and a two-year program where they spend only half the day in the office.
- A construction management company called HanmiGlobal Co. offers employees financial incentives for having children. It gives three million won (roughly $2,700) for having a third child. And it gives five million won (about $4,500) for a fourth child. In addition, mothers get six months of leave after giving birth. Further, the company pays the child’s tuition from kindergarten to university, regardless of how many children are in a family.
The small Finnish town of Lestijärvi saw just one birth in 2012. That prompted town officials to begin a baby incentive. Each baby born would get 10,000 euros, paid over 10 years. Finland has also implemented programs to help babies get off to a good start. These include a “baby box.” This box is sent to every woman, regardless of income or economic status. It includes clothes and other useful items. Further, Finland’s prime minister has recently announced a policy for new parents that will go into effect next fall. Under this policy, each parent will receive seven months of paid leave.
Poland has also taken action to increase birth rates. In 2016, it launched a program entitled Family 500+. Not only is this program aimed at increasing birth rates, but it also aims to decrease childhood poverty. Plus, it attempts to improve the living conditions of large families. As a result, Poland saw a 13 – 15 percent increase in childbirth between December 2016 and January 2017 compared to the same time frame in previous years.
In Greece, 36% of the country’s population is expected to be over 65 by 2050. To incentivize births, the government gives parents of newborn babies 2,000 euros. According to the Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Affairs: “People might think this is an issue of national pride but it’s actually one of national preservation.” She continues: “Given that high productivity rates are associated with young populations and not actively ageing ones, it’s also an economic growth priority.”
As for the tiny grouping of Greek islands called Fourni, which had no births in 2014 and none in 2015? Medical services and incentives have encouraged its residents to have babies. As of February 2020, there were 11 pregnancies.
Japan has its highest fertility rate in over 20 years. It attributes this increase to “cash incentives for having children.”
Hungary’s government has taken a somewhat different approach. It offers loans. If a family has enough children, the government will forgive the loan. Right now, the government’s incentive is slightly more than $30,000 (USD). But parents must understand the nuances of the guidelines. According to writer Lyman Stone, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies: “Families get $30,000 to have three kids…. A Hungarian woman can obtain a $30,000 loan when she becomes pregnant if she is in her first marriage, is between the ages of 18 and 40, and has a spouse who’s been employed for several years and has a middle-class income.”
How many women actually meet these criteria? Stone projects that only about 30% of Hungarian women do. Furthermore, the program is only scheduled to run to 2022. He sheds further light on the details:
If parents take the $30,000, they don’t owe any payments until three years after their next child is born, and if they have a second child, they get three more years. If they have a third child, the loan is forgiven. That’s the $30,000.
But if the clock runs out on the parents before they have a third child, they must pay back the whole loan, with interest, within 120 days. In other words, it’s a financial gun to the head of Hungarian couples.
This program may look good on paper. However, it may actually create hardship for families.
What about leave policies here in the US? In 2019, UNICEF conducted a study of 31 wealthy nations. Out of all these nations, the US was the only one that did not have a national leave policy for fathers or mothers.
Do Financial Incentives Work?
According to Lyman Stone:
Pro-natal incentives do work: more money does yield more babies…. But it takes a lot of money. Truth be told, trying to boost birth rates to replacement rate purely through cash incentives is prohibitively costly….
This doesn’t mean policymakers shouldn’t expand child benefits, which have many purposes, including reducing child poverty. It simply means that any pro-natal policy agenda will have to be about more than just a child tax credit. It’s vital that policymakers also think about how they can remove obstacles to marriage, facilitate access to decent housing, and accelerate completion of education—all vital elements in the modern economic life cycle leading up to childbearing. Without such a broad approach, pro-natal efforts will involve spending a great deal of money without a lot of results to show for it.
In addition to these incentives, people must be taught to understand the inherent value of babies and families. If they do not, financial incentives often become pointless. We need to instill a mindset change. And that begins when babies are first created. For too long, we have lived in a world that cares very little about a tiny preborn baby.
But there is a better way.
The Inherent Value of Babies
Children are immense gifts from God. Most people of faith believe this. But you don’t have to profess a faith to understand that babies are a blessing and that families are vital to the health of a society.
While a government’s financial and economic policies make a difference on a larger scale, religious teachings and practices that espouse the dignity of the human person influence people on a deeper level. These are the truths that will eventually make a difference. These are the truths that will change mindsets.
But people have to listen. And people have to act. Too often, these words fall on deaf ears. So we have to chip away. We have to encourage strong marriages. We have to encourage employers to value the women who work for them as women and mothers. We have to teach women that, if they choose to stay home with their children, they have become a valuable resource. We have to build an understanding of education based on the inherent dignity of the person. And because there will always be women facing unexpected pregnancies, we have to keep funding places that help them. Places like St. Gianna’s Maternity Home or Foundations for Life help mothers develop the skills—both parenting and job-related—to succeed in life.
So, while there are vast differences between what pronatalist policies and pronatalist beliefs offer a society, both are necessary. A government that helps parents is a great thing. But a government that fosters a respect for life is even greater. People look to government for guidance. If that guidance involves a respect for life, the people will begin to also adopt that respect.
When the human race, as one body, pulls together to work for the betterment of all people, society will flourish. When a government cares for the people it governs, our world will become a better place. When companies give their employees time off or the ability to work from home, families will thrive. When education is valued so that people can improve their skills and increase their levels of independence, productivity will increase. And when people see the value in monogamous and faithful relationships, the human race will prosper.
The family is the cornerstone of society. A better future will not come to a society that does not value human life.