Recently, the Hungarian government announced that women who had four or more children no longer had to pay income taxes. This measure is the latest in a series of efforts to stop declining population rates. Hungary is not the only country to struggle with a shrinking population, which is a phenomenon in most regions of the world. What are countries around the world doing to counter diminishing populations? Do this kind of measures work? And are declining populations really a problem?

Fertility measures; a short history

Towards the end of the 1960s, it was expected that the earth’s population would reach 16 billion by 2050. Today, however, the world population is expected to be around nine billion by that time. As many countries’ birth rate fell over the last decades, this was perceived as good news. It was widely accepted that countries’ and families’ wellbeing was threatened by having large numbers of children. 

When fertility rates started dropping, however, it was expected that it would stop at 2 children per woman, thereby maintaining population levels. Instead, in many countries, they kept declining. In the USA, for instance, the rate was 1.8 children per women in 2016, and in Canada, it was 1.6 per women. In Europe, women have 1.6 children in general, with France (1.92) having the highest rates and Spain and Italy having the lowest rates (1.34). Singapore has an extremely low birth rate, with just 1.14 children per woman

However, all of this does not mean that the Earth’s population is shrinking. In fact, in 2016, the average birth rate for all women in the world was 2.46 children, meaning that the Earth’s population is still growing. This high fertility rate is in large caused by high birth rates in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the birth rate is now 4.85 children per women. While this is still very high, it is a big difference from 1960, when it was 6.65 children per woman.

For countries that saw birth rates drop below 2 children per women, this creates a whole new set of problems. As populations will shrink, governments are afraid that it will cause economic stagnancy because of a loss in productivity, and a decrease in tax revenues can cause troubles in financing retirement and healthcare programs.

Hungary’s anti-migration approach 

While most European countries are compensating for their declining population growth by taking in migrants, Hungary is strongly opposed to such a solution. Instead, it is trying to increase its birth rate. Currently, Hungarian women have 1.45 children on average, which is not enough to keep up the population size. Moreover, now that Hungary is part of the EU, Hungarians are free to work in other countries, and many have left for EU countries where wages are higher. The declining birth rate and increased migration result in a declining population and rising labour shortages. 

In February, Hungary announced a new set of measures to counter the low birth rate of Hungarians. The Hungarian approach is to make life cheaper for big families. Interest on mortgages and car payments for families will be reduced, and it will be easier for families to get loans. The number of daycares will be increased, to encourage mothers to work. For grandparents, there is a benefit as well. They are now allowed to share maternity leave with their daughters. But most importantly, and also most controversially, Hungarian women with four or more children will no longer pay incomes tax.

In a speech to announce these new measures, Hungary’s president Victor Orbán said that Hungary is ‘living in times when fewer and fewer children are being born throughout Europe’. While other European countries respond to this new challenge with immigration, ‘Hungarians see this is in a different light’. According to Orban, Hungary does not need numbers, but more Hungarian children. Moreover, Orbán said that to depend on migration to keep up the current size of the population would be surrender and that he does not want the ‘colour of Hungarians to be mixed with those of others’.

These are not the first measures that Hungary took to save itself from the dangers of a declining population. It awarded university scholarships only to Hungarians that promised to stay in Hungary after graduation, and it offered citizenships to ethnic Hungarians living outside of Hungary to motivate them to move to Hungary. Moreover, recently Hungary passed a law increasing the amount of overtime that employers can ask of their workers to compensate for significant shortages of employees. The law that is now called the ‘slave law’ and has been widely protested dictates that workers can now be asked to work up to 400 hours of overtime a year.

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The irony of China’s fertility control measures

Only a few years after ending its policies to limit the number of children that Chinese were having which started in 1979, the Chinese government is now urging women to have more children. As the country’s birth rate has plummeted, it is now estimated that the labour force could lose 100 million people between 2020 and 2035, and then another 100 million from 2035 to 2050. 

In 1979, China’s famous one-child rule was first introduced. The law was met with much resistance, especially from the countryside. In 1984, rural families whose first child was a girl were allowed to have a second child, and some exceptions were made for minorities. In 2013, parents who were only children themselves could have a second child, and in 2016 the ban was lifted entirely. 

While one would expect that birth rates would quickly increase after the lift of the ban, decades of one-child policy are now showing their implications. For one, these restrictions led to an uneven gender balance, as traditional preference for boys led to illegal sex-specific abortions on female foetuses. Ironically, the lower proportion of women is now one of the reasons for China’s low birth rate. There are simply fewer women to marry and have children. Moreover, as whole generations have grown up as an only child, many Chinese see it as normal to have only one child. It has proven to be hard to change this mindset. Moreover, while the costs of education and housing have grown, Chinese adults are usually the only person to take care of their parents, putting extra financial and social pressure on young families. And as a new generation of working independent women stand up, the divorce rate is rising as well.

China is now taking action to halt the plummeting birth rate. In 2018, laws were proposed to give tax breaks to young families and to give subsidies for housing and education. Some regions such as Jiangxi Province are even tightening abortion laws and making it more difficult to have a divorce. This poses a danger for China to fall from one extreme (not allowing families to have more than one or two children) to another extreme.

More creative approaches

While some countries take traditional measures to increase birth rates, others take a more creative approach. In Georgia for instance, all single men and women, including those who are divorced or lost a spouse, are entered into a nationwide dating website.  

A specifically creative approach was taken by Denmark. In 2014, it ran an ad campaign urging Danes to ‘Do It for Denmark’. People could book a holiday using an “ovulation discount”. If they were able to prove that they conceived on vacation, they would win a baby supply for three years and a child-friendly holiday. In 2015, future grandparents could even buy vacations for their adult children in hopes that they would conceive a child during the vacation. 

Another example is Singapore, which has a stunningly low birth rate of only 1.14 children per woman. In 2012, Singapore authorities worked with Mentos to put together ‘National Night’ to encourage couples to let their ‘patriotism explode’. There was even a rap: ‘Singapore’s population, it needs some increasing. So, forget waving flags, August 9th we be freaking… I’m a patriotic husband, you’re my patriotic wife, let’s do our civic duty and manufacture life’. 

Russia saw a sharply declining population after the fall of the Soviet Union. In 2007, it decided to do something about this problem. It declared 12 September the National Day of Conception and awarded prizes such as refrigerators, money and cars to women who had a baby exactly nine months later on Russia’s national day, 12 June. The policy seems to have worked. Whereas the birth rate was 1.2 in 2000, in 2012 it was 1.7.

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Romania: a harsher approach

A less jolly approach was taken by Romania in the 1960s. Instead of offering benefits for families, Romania chose to fine any men or women above 25 years of age who did not have children. This tax was regardless of marital status and could amount to up to 20 per cent of their income. Moreover, it was made virtually impossible to get a divorce, police were active in hospitals to ensure that no illegal abortions took place, and the import of birth control was halted. While these measures were effective, the effect was lost as soon as police were no longer installed in hospitals. 

In the 80s, even stricter measures were taken during the Nicolae Ceausescu regime. Women were subjected to monthly gynaecological exams to detect pregnancies and ensure that these came to term. ‘Demographic command units’ would interrogate childless individuals and couples about their sex lives, and access to abortion was made even more difficult. To have access to an abortion, a woman had to have had five children who were still under her care, or she had to be over 45 years of age.

Do fertility measures actually work?

While many countries are taking measures to increase its population’s birth rate, the success of such measures is often unclear. So far, it looks like financial support or paid leave has a positive, but limited impact on birth rates. Evidence suggests that the most effective measure that governments can take is to provide quality childcare services. 

Sweden has been quite successful in its measures to increase fertility. Here, women receive much support to help them combine their lives as a parent and as a working woman. For instance, daycare is subsidised and parents who take time offer their children are guaranteed to have a job when they return. 

In France, families receive tax breaks, substantial financial support, social assistance and housing subsidies. Parents can take up to three years of parental leave, receive a stay-at-home allowance of approximately 50% of the minimum wage during this time, and then return to their employed in the same position. The French and Swedish approach seems to be working, as these countries have the two highest birth rates in the EU (respectively 1.92 and 1.85 children per women).

However, fairly similar measures have been much less successful in Germany and Austria, where families enjoy increased family leave and receive general child allowances over three or four years after the arrival of a new baby. Instead of rising birth rates, these measures mainly affected the timing of childbearing. Moreover, while in Canada it was found that an increase in child allowance of 1000 Canadian Dollars a year led to an increase in birth rates of 17 per cent, this increase was only temporary and was later compensated with decreased birth rates.

Singapore, with one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, has developed the most comprehensive pro-fertility policies in Asia. Through cash payments, co-saving plans tax rebates for working mothers, insurance for children and housing subsidies, families with two children can now enjoy benefits of about US$ 118,000 by the time both children turn 13. Moreover, paid maternal and paternal leave has been considerably increased, and childcare is subsidised. But somehow, these policies have noted the desired effect. In 2000, at the start of Singapore’s fertility policy, the birth rate was 1.6 children per women. In 2018, it was just 1.14.

What makes fertility measures successful?

Determining the success of fertility measures is extremely difficult because of the many factors that influence the decision to have children. Just some examples are the perception of motherhood and gender roles. In many European countries, for instance, over the last few decades, women have been pressured to combine motherhood with a job. The status of women became more and more based on her employment and their success in ‘having it all’. Now, it has been proven to be very difficult to convince women of the value and status of motherhood.

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Another factor is people’s perception of prosperity and poverty. While families in Singapore are much better off than just a few decades ago, many Singaporeans feel that they are not. This leads them to delay and even opt out of having children. 

Maybe, we should consider a very different approach in which we use fertility and family policies to give families options to make their own decisions. Perhaps we should judge the success of family policies on whether or not they succeed in making families happy. After all, having options to facilitate having a big family is great. Being forced to have a big family is not.

Are falling birth rates really a problem?

While countries in the world are fighting decreasing fertility rates, maybe we should wonder whether this is really a problem. With growing ecological, environmental pressure, ageing populations, and migration patterns is a growing population really what we need?

One often used argument to explain why decreasing fertility rates are a problem is that we need a big working population to compensate for the ageing of our population. After all, a smaller workforce means fewer contributions to retirement and social funds. However, increasing the number of children will not help take care of our ageing population. It will take 25 years or so for these children to grow up and enter the workforce. By this time, demographics will have changed, and the size of the older generation will be smaller. Moreover, having more children will immediately increase the number of dependents (children and people of age) that rely on the working population for support, thereby even increasing the burden on the current working population. 

Furthermore, traditional ideas about the need for big populations are based on former times, in which public health was less advanced and young men faced the risk of being drafted for bloody and costly wars. Nowadays, both children and adults are much less likely to become seriously ill or die before growing old, and wars take much less human lives. This all means that, while the number of new babies is decreasing, the adult population is not. 

Another argument that is often heard is that when the population gets smaller, so will our economic productivity and with that our welfare. However, because of artificial intelligence, huge working populations is no longer essential to being economically productive. Because of the significant role that technology now places in production, future economies will still be able to be productive, even with smaller working populations. Moreover, as the population declines, there will be more resources per person, which means that economic wellbeing will increase. 

Additionally, as migration patterns enhance, new influxes of migrants can help solve shortages in the labour force. As migrants often have higher fertility rates, this might even help increase birth rates. 

Finally, as our environmental footprint and the world’s population is still increasing, the human race’s survival might depend on putting a stop to population increase. It is a well-established fact that humans are causing climate change and depleting the earth’s resources. There is a real risk that if we do not change, nature will do it for us.

In fact, being child-free is the most effective way to decrease our environmental footprint. As people in developed countries have a particularly high ecological footprint, we should really consider if it is that bad if fertility rates are decreasing here. 

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