[NOTEBOOK]Ineffective population policy“Feel free to have babies, and Roh Moo-hyun will raise them.”
This was about what President Roh promised in the presidential campaign of 2002. We thought it would be just an empty pledge but surprisingly, his administration recently announced a series of measures to encourage childbirth, such as cash payments, new allowances for children, raising maternity leave pay and expanding existing programs.
One rather comic but ingenious idea was also included. National health insurance will help pay the cost of surgery for men to reverse a vasectomy. That, the government says, would remove cost as a factor for men who are considering the reversal. On the other hand, vasectomies would not be eligible for health insurance benefits.
The government seems to be in a hurry. It is true that the decreasing birth rate is a matter of urgency. If we leave the world’s lowest birth rate as it is, the working-age population will drop, economic growth rates will slow further, and society’s burden to support an aged population will increase.
In a reality where each family takes responsibility for giving birth to and bringing up children, we need to turn our attention urgently to the awareness that society should share these burdens with individuals.
But although it should take measures logically and step by step, the government is trying to solve every problem immediately by throwing money at it. Some say they believe that the measures are for the legislative election campaign only. The government even fosters a sense of crisis that the sole cause for the low birth rate is money. But this misses the point of the problem.
Why do young women decide not to have a baby? They may be greatly influenced by the desire for self-realization or a new lifestyle of the younger generation that focuses on the happiness of the couple rather than on having babies. But a more genuine and pressing reason is that they are afraid of raising children. Working women cannot freely use maternity leave or temporarily rest from their office duties. One of every two women quits her job after childbirth.
They have the same problem with nursing facilities and day-care centers. There are not many nursing facilities to whom they can easily entrust their children. Only about 60 percent of children who need day-care services are sent to nursing facilities. And at that, they have to wait for two to three years to send their children to a good facility because too many children are on the waiting list at the good ones.
What about education? A mother has to take care of too many things. The following episode happened in March of last year at a parent-teacher meeting for first graders of a private elementary school in Seoul. Because too many parents volunteered to work as the class parent representative, the teacher in charge suggested that a parent with an only child undertake the job because parents with a second child would have a hard time devoting themselves to the school work. Working mothers were also unwelcome in the position.
Mothers whose children are preparing for the college entrance examination have to break their backs to support their children. They should play the role of a trainer or examination consultant for their children. It is a great mistake to think that students should study by themselves or that they would not do better even if their mothers paid more attention to their studies. A survey showed that students with stay-at-home mothers entered Seoul National University at about four times the rate of those with working mothers.
Even wealthy people who can afford to raise children are reluctant to have babies. One 35-year-old woman runs her own business in Seoul; her monthly household income is 10 million won ($8,500). But she does not want to have a second child. Her mother brought up her first child, who is now 10, but she could not find a way to raise a second one. Even if the government encouraged her to have another baby by giving her a cash bonus or stipends, she would never be persuaded by such an unrealistic policy. If the government provided nursing expenses to lower income people, the outlays would be staggering.
This is why the government should approach the problem with comprehensive measures, including an improvement in the conditions for raising and educating children. The best measure to tackle the problem of a low birth rate is to enhance the quality of nursing services and to overhaul the education system so that parents do not pay exorbitant prices for private education. In particular, it is urgent to align the policy on child rearing to that of population and labor as well as to general policies on children and women.
Most parents do not expect or want the government to bring up their children. They just hope that the government would create conditions where they could raise their children properly. The more difficult and urgent the problem, the more faithful we should be to the basics.
* The writer is social affairs news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Ui-joon