Gov’t birthrate efforts aren’t working

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Gov’t birthrate efforts aren’t working

Despite nearly a decade of efforts by the government to encourage couples to have children, the country’s birthrate has failed to increase, in what can largely be attributed to the authority’s inability to provide a more positive environment for parents.

Statistics Korea and the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced on Sunday that Korea’s birthrate last year - the total number of births per 1,000 of the population annually - had stayed at 1.19 for two consecutive years, down from 1.3 in 2012.

The government has carried out over 100 policies since 2006 to encourage more babies being born. In fact, its annual budget has exceeded 10 trillion won ($9.2 billion) since 2012, though the endeavors have had little effect. Funds spent last year added up to 13.5 trillion won, and about 70 percent was put into day care, though the general view among most parents is that these policies are still seriously lacking.

In Ji-young, a 31-year-old working mom in Seoul, for instance, goes down to Daejeon every week to visit her mother, who is taking care of In’s 2-year-old son. This has continued for a year and a half: She departs for Daejeon on Friday night and returns to Seoul each Sunday - a routine that resulted from being unable to find a good day care center.

“I really want to have second baby, but not now,” In said. “We would have three children if we had a decent place to leave them, but there are already more than a hundred people on the waiting list for public day care centers.”

Experts remain critical of the government’s efforts.

“The fact that there are so many policies likely means that the government can actually do nothing,” said Senior Research Associate Michael Teitelbaum of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program.

Seoul National University’s honorary professor Lee Seng-wook agreed that current government policies did not effectively support people of childbearing age. “The government has come up with myriad of policies, but they could not created conditions that would make couples decide to have children,” Lee said.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government announced on Tuesday that it would set up about 1,000 additional public day care centers by 2018, raising the percentage of public facilities among all day care centers in Seoul from 13.7 percent to 28 percent.

However, the country’s overall percentage of public day care centers, which is currently 5.3 percent, is still expected to remain much lower than more advanced countries like Japan (49.4 percent), France (66 percent) and Sweden (80.6 percent).

Aspiring parents have also cited financial difficulties in preparing to have children, with many feeling like there is a lack of government support.

Bank teller Shin Yun-seong said he isn’t planning to get married any time soon. “I want to settle down before getting married,” he said. “Housing is the most urgent issue. Double-income families often aren’t covered in government support for housing due to high earnings.”

Another obstacle standing in the way of Shin realizing his dream of having two lovely daughters is the country’s overall work culture. “It is typical for female tellers to take maternity leave, but it still sounds absurd [in Korea] for male workers to take paternity leave,” he said.

But those who are married are also postponing having children.

Kim Min-jun, an office worker living in Busan, wed last year but plans to have children at least a year or two from now. “The biggest problem is money,” he said. “We are hesitating to have children because we won’t be able to safely raise our children without our own house.”

Kim’s wife also runs a small clothing store and isn’t ready to give up her work for motherhood. “Like many other newly married couples, we don’t think the government is really helping us to have children,” he said.

According to the Samsung Economic Research Institute, at the current birthrate, the Korea’s population is expected to be halved by 2100, a figure that has more experts suggesting that the government’s role is wanting.

“The country’s working customs need to change because companies are deterring their employees from having children by making them work long hours or work irregularly,” said Ku In-hoe, a social welfare professor at Seoul National University.

BY SHIN SUNG-SIK, RHEE ESTHER AND JUNG JONG-HOON [bongmoon@joongang.co.kr]


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