[FOUNTAIN]Time for birth incentives

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[FOUNTAIN]Time for birth incentives

"Let's have more babies." This is a campaign slogan in many parts of Japan this spring, in line with a report recently released by the Japanese government. As in recent years' reports, this spring's information is that young Japanese women are not very interested in starting families. Local governments hold an annual campaign to invite the public to come up with ideas that would raise women's interest in producing more offspring. Civic groups also participate in campaigns. Despite many charming ideas, including one suggestion that young couples go to bed early instead of watching late-night television, there seems to be little that can be done.

Singapore and Taiwan have similar problems, and it is only a matter of time before Korea must start a public discussion on how to boost its birth rate. These four countries, which are considered the most developed in Asia, have realized how difficult it is to stop the graying of society and keep national competitiveness intact.

The fertility rate in Japan was estimated at 1.41 children per woman last year. The rates in Japanese urban areas are even lower. The fertility rate should be about 2.1 per woman to keep population stable, but because Japanese women are getting married later and are reluctant to have children, the birth rate has fallen every year recently. The fertility rate in Korea is 1.42, close to Japan's. Taiwan's is at 1.68 and Singapore's is 1.22, the lowest among the four nations. In Singapore, government authorities right up to the most senior levels are involved in efforts to increase the number of babies.

To promote pregnancy and childbirth, the Singaporean government gives maternity leaves and a $1,700 endowment per child to couples with more than two children. The Japanese government is trying to foster a social atmosphere in which raising children is encouraged, and it is planning to expand the child care system and reduce work hours. Tokyo also plans to abolish legal discrimination against children born out of wedlock.

Those policies stem from worries that an aging population might lead to national decline. Sweden is increasing subsidies for child rearing and building new nursery schools. The steps came after Sweden learned a lesson from its experience in the 1990s, when a shortage of able workers led to an economic crisis. Although it is belated, the Korean government should also begin a campaign to induce women to have more children while respecting their human rights. It is a matter of national competitiveness.

The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Choi Chul-joo

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