A grim warning from 10 years ago
The author is the head of economic policy team of the JoongAng Ilbo.
A research report turned government offices upside down in April 2010. Kang Sung-won, then a senior researcher at the Economic Research Institute, published a shocking 25-page report titled “Urgent Proposal to Overcome Low Fertility Rate.”
He argued that Korea’s population would decrease by half in 2100 to 24.68 million, and it would further decease to 330,000 in 2500, then the nation could go extinct. He proposed that multidimensional measures for substantial long-term outcomes are needed rather than short-term measures to address the problem.
The report garnered both praise and criticism. Economic ministries were especially dissatisfied. They claimed that the prospect was “overly pessimistic” and the suggestions were “excessive and did not take financial resources into account.”
I went back to the proposed measures in the report, which included converting educational expenses to tax credits, inheritance tax exemptions for multi-children households, childcare payment for all income groups and free high school education and reduced college tuition for multi-children households.
They all look familiar. Since 2013, childcare payments have been offered to all income groups. The education expense income tax exemption was converted to a tax credit in 2014, and the inheritance tax exemption was expanded in 2015. Free high-school education for all, expansion of housing for newlyweds to those with over 100 million won ($90,992) in annual income and infant payments are all being implemented to a level beyond the suggestion of the proposal.
But nothing has changed. Actually, things are worse now. The report is based on a 1.2 aggregated fertility rate, the number of children that each woman will have in her lifetime. The rate has fallen below one and is headed to 0.72 in 2022. That means the population will decrease faster than the prospect 10 years ago.
I asked Kang, who is now working for the Korea Environment Institute, about the low fertility rate. He said things haven’t improved. He recalled that he frequently attended discussions on low-birth countermeasures at the time and he was one of the youngest participants, even though he had already completed a Ph.D. program.
He said he could not forget what one participant said. “Young people don’t have children,” he said. Kang added, “In the course of making policies on low birthrates, young people, who are the interested party, are excluded. If young people cannot live in decent houses and have a stable income, the problem can’t be resolved.”