[Viewpoint] Fighting the fertility crisis

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[Viewpoint] Fighting the fertility crisis

Korea has been hit by the low-fertility-rate bomb on top of the economic slump. The low fertility rate, combined with a rapidly aging society, is a threat to the existence of the nation. The year 2006 was said to be lucky for getting married, and 2007 was the so-called “Year of the Golden Pig,” so the number of newborns increased temporarily. However, the fertility rate dropped again.

The Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs predicts that if the economic growth rate remains at 2 percent this year, the fertility rate will drop to 1.08. At this rate, Korea’s population, currently 48.7 million, will shrink to 20 million by the year 2100. With the lowest fertility rate in the world, Korea’s future is grim. Futurists around the world predict that Koreans will be the first ethnic group to disappear from the face of the earth, by the year 2305.

In short, Korea is in a state of emergency. Reflecting the critical situation, not only the government, but companies, too, are busily working on various countermeasures. The government recently announced that non-homeowner households with three or more kids will be given priority with public rental housing, and it will provide free child care for 620,000 infants and toddlers, up from the current 350,000.

Moreover, one company made the news for giving employees a raise when they have children - an up to 1.6 million won ($1,262) increase for six children. Local autonomous governments are on a tight budget, but they also offer cash bonuses to residents for having children. Some even argue that Korea needs to accept more immigrants, like the United States, to resolve the low fertility issue rather than encouraging more births.

However, the fertility rate, by nature, will not show a change in a short period of time. The government introduced the Planned Parenthood Project in early 1960s to lower the fertility rate, and after 20 years, the goal of 2.1 was reached.

It takes far longer for the fertility rate to bounce back. The government can only succeed when it patiently promotes policies with a long-term perspective. Beefing up the government budget on encouraging childbirth will not resolve the problem. When different sections of society bring forces together and make continuous efforts, we will be able to see substantial effects.

The key to boosting the fertility rate is a childbirth-friendly social system. The burden of child care should not fall only on the mother, and the bias against mothers for workplace promotion is an aspect of our corporate culture that should change. The excessive financial burden of raising children, especially the cost of private education, should be lightened. Unless the whole of society becomes friendlier toward having children, providing a child care subsidy will not be very effective. Therefore, the government needs to introduce a comprehensive evaluation system to assess the effects of having children by reviewing how public policies in the tax system, finance, housing, education, health care, welfare, employment, transportation and the culture as a whole are friendly to marriage and childbirth. In order to provide solid legal support to the childbirth-friendly social system, related laws such as the Basic Law on Low Fertility and the Aging Society need to be revised accordingly.

Another important variable is financial assistance from the government in sharing the burden of raising children. The child care subsidy has been constantly increased, and efforts to improve the quality of child care services have been reinforced as well. However, the investment in child care and education of non-school age children was only 0.47 percent of the gross domestic product in 2008, below the level of developed countries such as Sweden. Child care is an investment for the future. Research shows that investing $1 in child care returns $4. Investment in children requires considerable financial resources, so we can consider establishing a fund to encourage having children, a cash bonus for having children, or imposing a special low-fertility tax.

Today’s reality poses many challenges. We have more than a few complications to resolve. However, if we neglect the imminent crisis because it does not cause immediate pain, it will be like living only for today, not for tomorrow. It will be a truly irresponsible choice for future generations of Koreans. The low fertility issue demands special attention and effort from us all.

*The writer, a former deputy minister of health and welfare, is the dean of the Graduate School of Health and Welfare at Cha University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Moon Chang-jin
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