The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. birthrate is falling. Here’s how other countries have tried to persuade people to have more children.

Many countries see dwindling birthrates as a crisis in the making. (iStock)
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With the U.S. birthrate declining for the sixth year in a row and undergoing its largest drop in nearly 50 years, according to provisional data released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States is facing a dilemma with which many wealthy nations in Europe and Asia have long grappled.

Declining population growth can also raise questions about who will care for a growing elderly population, fill crucial jobs and keep the economy afloat. Instead of trying to ramp up immigration, some governments have tried subsidizing fertility treatments, offering free day care and generous parental leave, and paying thousands of dollars in cash grants to parents.

U.S. birthrate falls to its lowest rate in decades in wake of the pandemic

But there’s little evidence that these policies have been effective on a large scale. South Korea, for instance, spent roughly $120 billion between 2005 and 2018 to incentivize having children, but its birthrate continued to fall.

Here’s a look at the ways that other countries have — and haven’t — tried to boost their populations.

Japan

Declining fertility rates and an aging population have been a source of concern in Japan for decades, but births have risen in some parts of the country where parents receive no-strings-attached cash grants for each child. One town that witnessed an increase in births provides cash incentives that start at roughly $940 for a first child and go up to roughly $9,400 for a fourth.

Overall, however, Japan continues to witness some of the fastest population decline in the world. The government has responded with steps to allow more foreign workers, a move intended to ensure that the country doesn’t run out of nurses, farmworkers or mechanics. But some question whether that strategy goes far enough, since guest workers typically lack the option to become permanent residents of Japan, or even to bring their families with them.

In 2019, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made preschool in Japan free. But experts say that societal demands still make balancing work and a family out of the question for most Japanese women — and many are choosing their careers over children.

South Korea

Unlike in the United States, parents in South Korea have access to universal free child care, subsidized housing and a slew of cash bonuses that include a monthly allowance of roughly $90 for each child under the age of 7. Some cities even offer perks such as free parking to make life easier for residents who want to start a family.

But the country still has one of the lowest fertility rates worldwide, which has raised national security concerns because it threatens to dramatically shrink the size of the military. Last year, South Korea’s government announced plans to increase the size of its childbirth stipends: Pregnant women will receive a $916 “congratulatory” allowance, followed by roughly $1,800 at childbirth and $275 a month for the first year of the child’s life.

Still, many young couples say that sky-high housing prices and fears of falling behind in competitive careers tip the scale in favor of remaining childless. “My mind won’t be changed with an extra couple hundred won coming into our bank accounts,” Kim Seung-pyo, 33, told the South China Morning Post. “Now, if they ever decide to give us 100 million won [$89,000] per baby, that’s a whole different question.”

Singapore

In the 1970s, the increasingly cramped city-state began encouraging people to have fewer children by giving smaller families priority for health care, education and government housing. The “Stop at Two” campaign made contraceptives widely available and pushed sterilization for parents who already had four children.

By 1987, the fertility rate had fallen so dramatically that Singapore reversed course and introduced a new policy with a very different message: “Have three, or more if you can afford it.” Worried about the implications of population decline, the government began offering new child-care subsidies, more-generous maternity leave policies and grants for new parents that today amount to $7,330 per baby.

But those interventions didn’t reverse the trend: Singapore currently has the world’s third-lowest fertility rate. Over the past year, as births fell to a historic low, the government doubled its payments for families that have a second child and ramped up its subsidies for preschool costs and fertility treatments.

Russia

Russia’s dwindling birthrate has been a source of frustration for President Vladimir Putin, who has said that it “haunts” him. For nearly two decades, the government has encouraged people to have large families by offering “maternity capital,” a one-time payment of roughly $6,200 that can be spent on expenses such as education or housing. Previously, that stipend was available only for families with two children or more, but Putin announced in 2020 that all new parents would become eligible.

For the first decade after “maternity capital” was introduced in 2007, the number of families choosing to have two children grew, Evgeny Yakovlev, a scholar of demographics, told the BBC. But in 2017, the birthrate began declining once again as many couples chose not to have children at all. “They were afraid of financial uncertainty,” Yakovlev said.

Putin has also promised tax breaks for large families, and government health insurance covers the cost of in vitro fertilization for women who struggle to get pregnant. But some Russians feel that the financial incentives don’t come close to the costs of raising a child. Others have found that trying to cash in on the “maternity capital” benefit involves bureaucratic headaches and lengthy delays, making the support hardly worth the hassle.

Estonia

Estonia offers a rare example of a country that’s succeeded at boosting its population. In 2001, the Baltic nation’s declining fertility rate was seen as a looming crisis, but by 2018 births were on the rise.

The country’s robust social welfare system has received much of the credit. Estonia offers a whopping year and a half of fully paid parental leave, even more than its Nordic neighbors. As Estonian Public Broadcasting has reported, maternity wards are “almost magical places” with bathtubs, exercise, dimmable lights and the option to listen to your favorite music. Giving birth costs nothing — a stark contrast with the United States, where the average delivery costs more than $4,500. Crucially, Estonia already has a low cost of living, and the cash incentives offered to parents mean that a family with three children receives a monthly allowance of roughly $624.

Immigration has also played a role: More people are moving to Estonia than are leaving. While that’s helped balance out dips in population growth, some government officials don’t think it’s a sustainable trend. Currently, Estonia does not allow the total number of people who immigrate each year to exceed 0.1 percent of the country’s permanent inhabitants, a policy intended to “maintain population balance.”

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