What can governments do to make fertility rates go up?

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Sept. 13 2007 6:35 PM

How To Make More Babies

What can governments do to make fertility rates go up?

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

In Russia's Ulyanovsk province, amorous couples got the day off on Wednesday to have sex for the official Day of Conception. Anyone who has a baby nine months from now—on June 12, Russia Day —can compete for money, an SUV, and other prizes. The program is part of Russia's effort to combat the population decline that's been taking place for 15 years. Other nations in Europe and Asia also want to raise their fertility rates (PDF). What's the best way to convince people to have more kids?

Throw cash at new parents, and make it easy for them to balance their careers and families. Government benefits—in the form of tax credits, for example, or state-run day care—can make raising children more manageable. Last year, Vladimir Putin proposed a number of benefits designed to encourage large families, like long maternity leaves and $8,900 cash subsidies for stay-at-home mothers who have a second child. Some governments go one step further, doling out dating advice along with financial incentives for babies.

In France and the Scandinavian countries, which have some of the highest fertility rates in Europe, parents get lots of government help. A French maman has at least 16 weeks of mandatory, paid maternity leave, as well as guaranteed job security and—if she has a third child—a monthly stipend of up to 1,000 euros for a year. In Norway, women are entitled to 10 months at their full salary or a year at 80 percent. Because these policies have been in place for decades, the countries' fertility rates are approaching 2.1, roughly the point where a population can sustain itself without immigration. Other nations are emulating this approach: Spain now offers a 2,500 euro bonus for every baby born. South Korea, which has one of the world's lowest fertility rates, shells out $3,000 per couple for in-vitro fertilization. And in Germany, where women have an average of 1.3 babies, Angela Merkel proposed up to 1,800 euros a month for stay-at-home parents, and more day-care centers to improve the public image of working moms—who have long been dubbed Rabenmütter, or "raven mothers." (Countries plan these financial incentives carefully to avoid drawing in too many poor parents—and creating a bigger lower class.)

A few governments get right in your business when it comes to meeting mates. In Japan, the state sponsors speed dating (along with child-care reforms). Singapore provides a state matchmaking program catering to university grads—and relationship advice from the government.

So, will Russia's Day of Conception have any effect? Seventy-eight babies were born in Ulyanovsk province's hospitals in the month of June after last year's whoopee holiday. But that's just a 4.5 percent increase from before, and the limited measure probably won't make a dent in the population decline. The bar was a little higher back in the 1940s, when Stalin declared any woman who gave birth to 10 or more children a "Hero Mother."

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Jonathan Grant of RAND, Carl Haub of Population Reference Bureau, Geoffrey McNicoll of the Population Council, and Lisa Neidert at the University of Michigan.

Michelle Tsai is a Beijing-based writer working on a book about Chinatowns on six continents. She blogs at ChinatownStories.com.

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