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What Can Governments Do About Falling Birth Rates?

“We have a fairly unique moment in the history of the world,” said Steven Philip Kramer, a professor at National Defense University, at the Wilson Center on April 17. “There’s never been a time when people have voluntarily produced fewer children than is necessary for sustaining the population.”

Date & Time

Apr. 17, 2014
3:00pm – 4:30pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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“We have a fairly unique moment in the history of the world,” said Steven Philip Kramer, a professor at National Defense University, at the Wilson Center on April 17. “There’s never been a time when people have voluntarily produced fewer children than is necessary for sustaining the population.”

And yet that is the case in parts of the world today. The Other Population Crisis: What Governments Can Do about Falling Birth Rates, which Kramer finished while a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center, explains the unique demographic challenge of rapidly aging populations and governments’ attempts to reverse the trend.

“It Just Keeps Going Down”

“The idea of having a book about declining birth rates, in a way, is seen as absurd,” Kramer said. Overall, world population is projected to climb to nearly 9.6 billion by 2050and this growth is often considered one of the biggest challenges to security and sustainability today.

But the two trends – rapid growth and fertility decline – are not as distinct as they may appear, Kramer said. As developing countries gain access to better health care and poverty rates decline, their total fertility rates – the number of children per woman – also tend to decline, a phenomenon called the demographic transition. But contrary to what was previously believed, “they don’t stop at the magical number of 2.1, which guarantees a sustainable population,” Kramer said.

While parts of the world are still growing rapidly today, an estimated 48 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where women have children below the replacement rate, with Europe and East Asia leading the way. “Deep down we all think the universe makes sense,” Kramer said, and that the birth rate will go to a sustainable level. “But it doesn’t. It just keeps going down, in many cases to a very low level, and that’s the problem.”

Five Case Studies

In research for The Other Population Crisis, Kramer visited five countries with very low fertility rates: France, Sweden, Italy, Singapore, and Japan. To understand why women and families choose to have fewer children in these societies, it’s necessary to see the place yourself and witness the daily rhythms of life, work, and family, he said.

For example, Kramer said Singapore is not a place where “you can imagine it’s easy to be a parent and easy to be a child.” Parents work long hours often on the opposite side of the island, and playgrounds in apartment complexes are surrounded by 200 feet of concrete on all sides. “You can hardly imagine what it would be like for a child to be playing there,” he said. “Just seeing that, I think, was a profoundly important thing [for] understanding why there’s a low birth rate.”

The book also explores ways in which aging might affect national security, which Kramer writes could occur through strains on social welfare systems; reduced economic growth and innovation; new migration patterns; and evolving power relations. Rhodes College Professor and demographer Jennifer Dabbs Sciubba, who reviewed the book and provided questions ahead of time, asked why other countries with low fertility rates that are more central to global security – like Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and the United States – are not considered. According to Kramer, though case selection was based partly on “serendipity” and travel budgets, the five countries were also chosen to capture key insights from successful, unsuccessful, and nonexistent pro-natalist policies in “advanced societies.”

“What Russia is, is hard for me to define,” Kramer said, “and China is not just an advanced society, it’s also a developing society.” He noted France and Sweden both had “successful programs for different reasons,” Singapore’s small size makes it a “terrific laboratory for any kind of political phenomenon,” Japan is important because it has the third-largest economy in the world, and Italy has excellent demographic resources available and was logistically favorable.

Exploring Reasons Why

For policymakers, the prescription for achieving the first stages of the demographic transition – fertility decline and the demographic dividend – is fairly straightforward: access to health care and education, and opportunities for young people, particularly women. But how to encourage higher or at least replacement-level fertility rates, at the latter end of the demographic transition, is less clear.

There’s no way you’re going to tell people, ‘We’re going to force you to have children.’ It’s nonsense,” Kramer said. “These are things that people really care about, and I think that it’s always dangerous in a society to tell people to do things that they absolutely won’t do.”

For example, in response to a question from Sciubba about the influence of the Catholic Church in Italy, Kramer said the Church has had little effect on fertility choices despite its political power. “In terms of affecting people’s sexual life, that influence is almost negligible; people don’t follow the Church’s dictates.”

To realistically boost fertility rates, governments have to make it possible for women to reconcile work and family, Kramer said. “You have to have housing and education for these children to develop well, and you have to have programs which are not monetary programs but social programs.” Things like daycare and strong early education help children assimilate into society and give mothers the confidence that they can return to work when they want. “If you can’t do that, women are not going to have children.”

Reduce Stress for Working Parents

Some countries have been more successful than others at boosting fertility rates. Since 2002, France’s fertility rate has increased from 1.74 to 2.08, in part thanks to a variety of pro-natalist initiatives, such as tax deductions for dependents and paid maternity leave financed through the national health insurance system, Kramer said.

The ideas behind these policies are not new. In the 1930s, the work of a Swedish couple, fittingly enough, Gunnes and Alva Myrdal, created what Kramer described as the basis of modern thinking on encouraging higher fertility rates in developed countries. Their ideas included financial support for larger families, subsidized prenatal care and delivery, and the right for women to have 12-week maternity leave. It was a “logical system that basically takes care of insecurity which surrounds most women and most families in having children,” Kramer said, essentially reducing the stress for working parents.

But these welfare programs are also expensive, and today the question is not if similar policies can work, but if they can be funded, said Kramer. “In a time when neoliberalism is so strong, when the government is doing less rather than more, and there are a lot of people who think the government should spend less money, do you find the money to do the same kind of things?” he posed. “So that raises the question, if not that, then exactly what?”

Celebrating Success While Planning for the Future

Besides the difficulty in funding pro-natalist policies, Kramer also worries about an increasingly pessimistic view about the future. “There’s a feeling, very prevalent today, that things are not going to be that great for the next generation, and therefore it makes sense on a family basis not to have too many, so you can concentrate your resources for one child,” he said. “I see this as one of the really biggest issues connected with low birth rates that perpetuates itself and aggravates itself.”

Kaja Jurczynska of Population Action International, who also reviewed the book and provided questions, raised concerns about “aging alarmism” prompting “punitive measures against contraception.” According to Kramer, however, “once women know how to deal with contraception…they will manage to practice it,” even in the face of state-led counter-pressures. He cited, for example, the continued use of family planning in Iran even after the government reversed course on a number of policies in 2012 and started restricting access to try to encourage higher birth rates.

Jurczynska also noted it’s important to keep in mind that the improvements in medical care and lifespans that have led to declining mortality and aging populations is something to be celebrated, not lamented. “It’s easy to forget that sort of a key component around low fertility and population, aging is a very successful, human success story,” agreed De Souza.

But that may be little solace to countries like Japan, where by 2050 as many as 4 out of 10 people may be over the age of 65. Aging is an issue that is only beginning to unfold and more research and collaboration across sectors is needed. “There are a lot of paradoxes about this, and that’s what makes it such a fascinating subject to study,” said Kramer. “I see this as a beginning of a study and not an end.”

Event Resources:

Sources: UN Population Division.


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