Sunday, July 30, 2006

Help the Economy: Have a Baby - a rant on birth-encouragement policies

The birth-rate in South Korea is at a record low. As one of the most densely populated nations in the world, some would be forgiven for thinking that population decline might actually be a good thing. But apparently that is not the case. The South Korean government is very concerned about this trend and is planning to spend 32 Trillion won to boost the birth-rate. The money will be spent of a variety of initiatives designed to 'ease the burden of child-rearing'. I find that phrase particularly amusing because the policies are aimed at those women who are more likely to view child-rearing in a more positive light rather than label it a burden.

Just as a quick aside: Cathartidae has a short post on Bada's contribution to this effort. Her idea, like the government's ideas, are likely to lead to very little.

I find public policy addressing birth-rates to be an endlessly fascinating topic. Here you have a bunch of suited old men with little financial woes lamenting the economic repercussions of an aging population combined with low birth rates. These are the men (in Korea I think we can assume the main policy makers are men) drafting policies to encourage women to start having children earlier and to have more of them. Their concern for families wanting children and women's views on child-rearing are limited to their own myopic economic perspective. I'm not saying their policy prescriptions are bad. I think they are neutral. My own knowledge of women who want children is that these policies have very little impact, if any, in the decision-making process of when to have children and how many.

The issue I have here is one of motivation. I think that spending money of childcare facilities and such are a good idea. But the motive behind the policy is wrong. Cheaper and better childcare facilities should be aimed at allowing women (and families) greater choice and freedom in this area. That is, the option for women to go back to work or to stay home, to work part-time or full-time, to take time off and return later to work or whatever. The idea of having better childcare facilities with the aim of ensuring that women can return to the workforce for the economic good of the nation is insulting. The problem I have is not the policy, it is the policy-makers idea of what the 'problem' is.

I don't isolate Korea in this. Australia's 'baby bonus' I thought, was highly offensive. My gripe is that these policies are not designed with the aim of granting women (and families) greater freedom to choose how and when they raise a family. They are designed to "boost the birth-rate". If there is an economic impact to reduced birth-rates surely a better option is to find out how the economy can adjust. I have yet to see a government report that looks at the savings (long-term obviously) of a lower population on public and natural resources compared to the cost of having to first pay for the aging population (pension and care for the elderly costs). I think its time to accept that many women (and families) in modern society just don't want children and that government policy should try to reflect that reality rather than try and change it.

Currently reading:

"Hell" by Yasutaka Tsutsui