[Viewpoint] Misguided fertility rate policy

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[Viewpoint] Misguided fertility rate policy

The government has pumped 5 trillion won ($4.22 billion) this year into numerous policies for trying to fix the nation’s critically low fertility rate, but there are few signs that we are going to see a spurt just yet.

Against this backdrop, the Ministry for Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs, which is wholly responsible for tackling the record-low fertility rate, is preparing a draft act stipulating that the entire nation should receive demographic education with a strong emphasis on values.

From a demographer’s perspective, there are a myriad of flaws with the details, object and methodology of demographic education presented by this draft act. Above all, the premise of the act seems inappropriate. It prescribes the implementation of demographic education focusing on raising people’s awareness by helping juveniles and people understand the significance of children and families. The ministry formulated the act on the premise that “addressing the issue of low fertility rate cannot be successful unless each and every person in our nation strives to renew their own awareness.”

The point is that values cannot be regarded as the major culprit behind the massive drop in the number of babies being born. People’s general values are shifting in an individualistic and rational direction, but family values remain largely unchanged, unlike other common sense values. Research findings suggest that Koreans’ values regarding marriage, children and divorce remain unchanged compared to those in other countries. Koreans are still very traditional and conservative. Although this country has undergone turbulent social changes in the past 100 years, family values seemed to have held fast.

Therefore, we find it difficult to resolve the problem of the low fertility rate by conducting value-oriented education. Rather, there is a need to reconsider the draft act on supporting demographic education, which starts from the premise that people are reluctant to have kids due to weakened family-oriented traditional values. In addition, we are concerned that the wrongly-focused act is comparatively more likely to hamper the resolution of the socio-structural roots behind the problem.

There are many problems with a variety of implementation measures as indicted in the new draft act. The act aims to establish a center for supporting demographic education under the control of local governments nationwide with the aim of strengthening the effects of socio-demographic education. However, a huge amount of operational costs may arise in launching the new bodies throughout the nation. Additionally, the problems of soaring budgets each year may arise under the pretext of various operating costs. There is a high possibility that the centers will be unable to offer substantial and high quality education within the environment that requires highly skilled workers poised to provide better demographic education. In addition, middle-aged people who have already passed their peak fertility period are likely to become a major focus of the education, if it is implemented in haste. It is worrisome that the national budget may be wasted on people who stand less chance of having kids due to reduced fertility.

If demographic education is needed to address the low fertility rate problem, it should strongly emphasize the provision of systematic demographic education concerning the demographic phenomenon mostly conducted by higher education institutions, rather than value-oriented education. However, currently, demographic studies at universities are virtually non-existent. Korea’s universities fail to produce highly qualified academic personnel who can transfer their knowledge in demography. Yet this field of expertise is absolutely needed for resolving our demographic problems. In addition, support of demographic research is rarely provided, despite the persistent need to develop numerous basic or in-depth research studies. If we are bent on finding a solution to the problem in the situation lacking necessary basic research, inappropriate policies will be often more likely to appear.

According to research conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, if we improve the child-rearing support system based on the results of a benchmark-conducted survey on advanced European countries, Korea will show a rise in the fertility rate by 0.51. In addition, the expansion of facilities for nursery care will result in an expected rise of 0.43 and maximizing the effects of female part-time employment will entail an expected rise in the fertility rate by 0.19.

The government should devise systematic measures to promote fertility rates. The unification of financial incentives to encourage more children, which began in rural areas facing reduced populations, is far more effective. It is important that the government implement concrete measures, rather than depend simply on knowledge or education, for the purpose of recovering from the low fertility rate.

The writer is a sociology professor at Chungnam National University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Jun Kwang-hee
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