Get serious on the birthrateThe Lee Myung-bak administration is seeking to diversify its policies on increasing the birthrate. They say the key is to provide greater assistance, including child care subsidies, to more families. That would go a long way toward encouraging families that have been reluctant to have children due to financial concerns. And yet, the effectiveness of such a plan is questionable if we look at the reasons behind why Korea has the lowest birthrate in the world.
A recent report by the Health and Welfare Ministry on the number of children born to married women backs our concerns. According to the report, 1.72 children were born into single-income households, while 1.63 children were born to dual-income married couples. Compare that to last year’s fertility rate of 1.19.
The statistics show that the country’s low birthrate is related to the number of women in their 20s and 30s delaying marriage, rather than to married couples deciding not to have children. The National Statistical Office last month noted the rapid increase in the number of unmarried women in that age group, saying that the low birthrate cannot be increased by encouraging married women to have more children.
Why are so many women in Korea delaying marriage? One oft-cited problem is the difficulty of managing work and family. Most women are in charge of affairs at home, and companies tend to avoid hiring married women who will use their maternity leave. The young working women of today are different from those of previous generations. They believe getting married is a choice, but having a career is a must. That’s why more and more women have chosen to remain single longer.
To resolve these problems, Korean society must transform itself into a more family-friendly structure. Husbands and wives must share the burden of child care equally and companies must support their employees’ decision to have children by instating flexible work hours and granting maternity leave. To encourage companies, the government can provide related tax incentives and benefits.
A recent report by the National Assembly Budget Office stated that the birthrate will not increase no matter how much the government spends to encourage childbirth, unless fathers take a more active role in raising their children, and pointed to examples in Germany and Japan. In contrast, northern European nations such as Sweden have enacted laws to ensure that fathers use their maternity leave, which has in turn boosted the birthrate in those countries.
It will take time and a sizable financial investment to build such a system, but when the government decides to spend money to boost the birthrate, it must do so effectively.