Italy extends rewards for more babies

Posted: 20 April 2004

The Italian Government, worried about the country's falling birth rate, has decided to extend its rewards to mothers who give birth. The cash bonus, introduced last year, for women who have a second child, will now go also to those giving birth to their first child.

The original plan, announced last November, offered women a 1000 Euro bonus, which has already been been paid to 190,000 women. It also suggested raising the the retirement age from 60 to 65, a proposal which triggered labour unrest. Both moves were in response to plummeting fertility rates and increasing life expectancy.

Italy has the lowest fertility rate, at 1.23 children per woman, and the fastest ageing population in Europe. The foundations of the ample state pension scheme have already begun to crumble.

In the pre-war years, Italians traditionally had large extended families, but rapid industrialisation meant people moved away from their family network to find jobs in cities and the birth rate declined rapidly.

Welfare crisis

Today this situation is nearing crisis point. "If projections are right, then in 2050 Italy will have 15 million fewer people than today, whichmeans we won't have enough young people to pay for welfare system, pensions, health and so on, " says economist Giuseppe Pennisi (but see footnote).

In a country where family values are still closely linked to the church, the Catholic lobby in government has been shouting loudest for solutions to save the Italian family from extinction.

"Helping families to have more children if they want to is a duty for our country and workforce," said Marco Follini, leader of the Union ofChristian Democrats and supporter of the proposal.

But Rocco Falivena, the mayor of Laviano, said that the government's 1 000 euro bonus is 'a symbolic amount,' not enough to encourage women to have more children. In a bid to use financial incentives to increase the birth rate in his own town, where in 2002 only four babies were born, he decided last year to offer women 10 000 euros over a five year period for each additional baby.

Household chores

Letizia Mencarini, a professor of statistics at the University of Florence, questioned more than 3,000 mothers from five different cities across Italy in an effort to find out what would persuade them to have more children.

She found that the more the father was involved in the chores of looking after the child and household, the more likely his wife was to want and have a second baby. The survey indicated that Italian men do little around the house - fewer than six per cent of mothers responded that their husbands "always" or "often" did household chores . Consequently many women cannot face the dual burden of going out to work and looking after an extra child. They have to give up one of those two options: they usually decide to sacrifice the extra child.

"It is possible that it works," says Maura Mitziti, a researcher from the national institute of population research in Rome who has studied theimpact of cash incentives on fertility.

"Measures like these have been used in Sweden, and we do see a peak of fertility when the measure is first implemented. But then we see that the attitudes come back to normal levels because it is not just about money."

Bad services

"We have a tradition of bad services - creche, kindergarten, even timings of schools and shops... and of course lots of bureaucracy," she says. "We need the value of equal opportunities to be recognized and people to recognize the value of work-life balance."

In the United Kingdom, which also has a low birth rate and an ageing population,some commentators have welcomed the prospect of a smaller population. According to the Optimum Population Trust, Britain would be better off with a population of 30 million, rather than the current 59 million.

  • According to the 2003 World Population Data Sheet of the Population Reference Bureau, the UK population is projected to rise to 63 million by 2025 and to remain at that level in 2050. By contrast Italy's population is projected to fall from 57 million to 52 million by 2050.

Sources: PlanetWire, 2nd October,2003. Sunday Telegraph, London, 18th April, 2004.