Gov’t spins wheels on low birthrate solutions

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Gov’t spins wheels on low birthrate solutions


Kim Sang-hee, vice chairman of the Presidential Committee on Ageing Society and Population Policy, announces new measures to raise the birthrate at the Central Government Complex in Seoul on Thursday. [YONHAP]

A presidential committee trying to elevate the country’s dismal birthrate unveiled a set of measures worth 900 billion won ($804 million) Thursday, but many were expansions of existing benefits that haven’t worked, analysts said.

The Presidential Committee on Ageing Society and Population Policy announced a set of measures such as expanding the paid paternity leave for fathers to 10 days from the current three days and providing 500,000 won to couples not covered by employment insurance for 90 days after they have a child.

According to the committee, it was following a shift in the paradigm of the birthrate policy declared last December in which the government promised to improve the quality of life of child-rearing parents.

At the time, the government stressed that such conditions would make it a “rational decision” by unmarried people to marry and have children.

But the measures announced Thursday stopped short of creating such conditions and simply extended the scope of benefits from previous policies that have failed to turn around a continuing fall in birthrates that dropped to 1.05 births per woman last year.

Among the announced benefits is a measure to further reduce the cost of outpatient treatments for children under the age of one to bring medical expenses to virtually zero. But this does not cover hospitalization bills. Another measure will allow parents who have children younger than eight years old to take off one hour per day from work for up to two years without wage reductions. Another measure expands the current guarantee of providing 80 percent of normal wages - with a ceiling of 1.5 million won a month - for paternity leaves to two years from the previous one year.

While the focus of the policy package was on expanding financial benefits, the committee stopped short of providing solutions to fundamental issues that are preventing people in their 20s and 30s from marrying and having children.

Alarmed by the dropping average birthrate, the government has poured more than 100 trillion won since 2006 into ways to raise the birthrate, or the number of children a woman bears in her lifetime, to no avail.

The average birthrate has continued to drop despite the government’s 100 trillion won investment to reverse it over the past decade. It fell to 1.05 last year from 2012’s 1.3 per woman.

The number of newborns last year stood at 357,700, an 11.9 percent drop on-year. It was the first time that the figure fell below the 400,000 mark since the government began compiling the data in 1970.

The presidential committee predicted the figure this year could be lower at 320,000 with the average birthrate below one per woman, an unprecedented figure. If the current trend persists, the number of yearly newborns could fall below the 200,000 mark before 2022, the committee warned. Many women resist having children because they already do enough housework - often on top of full-time jobs.

A 2015 study by Statistics Korea showed that working wives spend three hours and 14 minutes per day on housework while working husbands only spend 40 minutes, lower than India’s working husbands’ 52 minutes. Danish men put in the longest time on household chores with 186 minutes.

Some women quit their careers to concentrate on child-rearing, resulting in Korea having merely 57.4 percent on women’s economic participation in the workforce rate, nearly 10 percent lower than the average for member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is 66.8 percent.

Analysts said the latest government measures are “too complacent” considering the dire birthrate situation. Jung Jae-hoon, professor of social welfare policy at Seoul Women’s University, pointed out that principles of the paradigm shift that the government proclaimed last December were absent from the latest policy initiatives, especially balancing out the heavy burden placed on women.

“The message from the so-called shift of paradigm is nowhere to be seen in the policy initiative,” he said. “The government needs to lay out a policy that would make women think they would not solely take the brunt of child rearing.”

The committee said it will unveil more policies that would tackle the issue in a fundamental way in October.

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