Governments fight low birthrates with immigrants, financial support as fertility dwindles

Governments fight low birthrates with immigrants, financial support as fertility dwindles

Shafaq News/ It was a word choice worthy of a Napoleonic call to arms: Réarmement démographique. French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent announcement of a “demographic rearmament” captured the high stakes he sees in trying to combat declining birth rates.

In his Jan. 16 address, Macron warned against the “scourge” of a nation that doesn’t make enough babies, and the need to combat it with better-paid parental leave and other such social programs.

The demographic issue is not new. France’s birth rate has been declining since 2014 and the age of pregnancy continues to grow older with the enhancement of women’s careers and contraceptive techniques.

Macron’s alarming tone is all the more notable since France’s birth rate is still the highest in Europe, at about 1.68 births per woman. But it speaks to the urgency around the world for countries that have declining demographics, as an aging population tends to slow aggregate wealth and productivity.

In parts of eastern Asia, the problem is particularly acute. This week both South Korea and Japan released record low birth rates. South Korea counted 230,000 births last year, its birthrate falling by 8% to 0.72 while the number of births in Japan fell by 5.1% to 758,631.

Population decline is indeed a global issue, and combating it has become a priority worldwide, with governments implementing a variety of measures to boost birth rates, both direct and indirect. Yet increasingly, the actions taken by governments turn out to have little or no impact — and sometimes have even triggered the opposite of the intended outcome.

Pay to make babies?

The former government in Poland sought to reverse declining birth rates with laws that would simply "pay women" to have babies. But as Warsaw-based Gazeta Wyborcza reported, the conservative government’s distribution of a monthly stipend to families with children coincided with a drastic anti-abortion law implemented in 2020.

The result was even lower birth rates, which some believe can be explained as a kind of protest by women: not having children represents a subtle form of social movement for women that don’t endorse the gender task imposed on them. Women don’t feel safe having children in a patriarchal country with these laws, a reality that financial aid can’t compensate.

There is a shared feeling among South Korean women that the government is not listening to their needs.

Similar cases have occurred in Asia. South Korean women avoid giving birth as a sign of protest against societal norms, which has kept South Korea’s birth rate under the 1.3 bar since 2001.

The government in Seoul has been implementing measures such as allocating pensions to parents as an incentive to procreate. Overall, the South Korean government invested 379 trillion won ($286 billion) spread over 16 years towards initiatives designed to boost birth rates, including direct payments to families. Again, the maneuver did not work with South Korea having the lowest birth rate globally, reaching a “death cross” with more deaths than births in 2020.

South Korea, in fact, ranks last again in fertility in 2023, as the country continues to ask why women are not having children. There is a shared feeling among South Korean women that the government is not listening to their needs, but rather throwing money out the window as structural realities are not being targeted.

More concretely, women are choosing not to have children to pursue a better work-life balance in the face of gender inequality and the competitive nature of parenting in Korean society, expressing the need for more comprehensive solutions beyond financial incentives.

Political control of women’s bodies

Standing just a few slots above South Korea in the fertility ranking is China. In its post-family planning era, China’s transformation of the “one-child policy” to the “three-child policy” diminished contraceptive education and funding while encouraging fertility through the payment of welfare benefits. Yet the possibility of having up to three children and lack of sex education resulted in high numbers of teen pregnancies, and thus teen abortions, Chinese-language digital media The Initium outlines. The government’s push for more births has not reversed the trend of population decline, and China is reporting a record-low birth rate in 2023, for the second year in a row.

While France talks about “rearming,” South Korean leaders have declared a “national emergency,” and their counterparts in Japan planning “unprecedented steps” as the number of births reaches a record low for the eighth consecutive year.

Yet Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland specializing in demographic trends, says would be “family planning” by governments tends to be ineffective, at best. “Anything you do to influence [birth rates] is going to have very probable bad side effects,” Cohen said. “And any benefits you get are likely to be very small.”

Immigration Factor

Latin America has its own unique demographic storyline over past decades. In the mid-20th century, many countries in Latin America had high fertility rates, with large family sizes being the norm. Factors contributing to these high birth rates included cultural norms, limited access to contraceptives, and less developed family planning programs.

Programs providing free or low-cost contraceptives such as subdermal implants have then contributed to a substantial decrease in pregnancies in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. This is a positive indicator of social development, although it has now triggered similar demographic challenges as we see in Europe and Asia, contributing to the shrinking workforce and pressures on pension systems.

In September, Uruguay announced the creation of a Commission of Experts in Population Policy (Comisión de Expertos en Política Poblacional) in response to the decline, discussing a potential new wave of migration to be promoted by the state. Although it did not suffice to escape the “ultra-low fertility” threshold of 1.3 births per woman, the country did see an increase in population with the arrival of immigrants at the end of 2023.

The previous waves of migration have reinforced the working and reproductive age population.

In Chile, the government already noticed that the migrant population renews the ranks of the nation’s youth, and also boosts birth rates. Recognizing the positive impact of migration on the nation's youth and birth rates, the Chilean government had been proactive in adapting its strategy to facilitate the integration of newcomers, implementing inclusive education programs, promoting employment opportunities, and ensuring access to healthcare services for migrants and their families.

But in recent years, the government’s hardening of migration policies trying to regulate illegal entry may explain why Chile reported the lowest birthrate in a decade in 2023. This rate would have been even lower without the previous waves of migration that have reinforced the working and reproductive-age population, accounting for over 33% of population growth between 2010 and 2020.

Back in France, immigration is also a much-debated topic, overlapping with Macron’s announcement on fertility. The state’s laws to harden immigration requirements appear to contradict the “war” on demographic decline.

For some, France is going down a path that constitutes a regression in political and social advances. French feminist organizations did not wait to scream “leave our uteruses alone” after Macron presented his fertility plan, which is seen as a nod to right-wing voters.

What looks clear is that the new “armament” is more about economic policy than social reality, and the French people are far from convinced.

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