Why Italy's facing a birth rate apocalypse

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Italy’s birth rate has more halved since the ‘baby boom’ of the 1960s. Photo: Giulio Bernardi/Flickr
11:50 CEST+02:00
It’s been almost two years since Prime Minister Matteo Renzi introduced an €80-a-month ‘baby bonus' for low-and-medium income families.

The father of three - who earns considerably more than the average Italian homemaker - said at the time that he knows what it’s like to have to “buy nappies, baby bottles and spend for nurseries”.

But now Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin wants to double that amount in a bid to stave off what she describes as a “catastrophic” decline in the country’s birth rate, as well as introduce higher payments for second and subsequent children.

Italy’s birth rate has more halved since the ‘baby boom’ of the 1960s, with the number of births falling to 488,000 in 2015 – fewer than in any other years since the modern state was formed in 1861.

“If we carry on as we are and fail to reverse the trend, there will be fewer than 350,000 births a year in 10 years’ time, 40 percent less than in 2010 — an apocalypse,” the minister, Beatrice Lorenzin, said in an interview with La Repubblica on Sunday.

“In five years we have lost more than 66,000 births (per year) — that is the equivalent of a city the size of Siena,” the minister added. “If we link this to the increasing number of old and chronically ill people, we have a picture of a moribund country.”

Italians love children, but the stereotypical image of parents surrounded by their large brood has been confined to history.

And the ‘baby bonus’ will do little to change that, Elisabetta Addis, an economist and demographics expert at the University of Sassari, told The Local.

Italian women give birth to 1.39 children on average, compared the 1.58 average across the EU.

One of the main things stopping them from having more is the drastically low rate of participation of women in the workforce.

“It’s 37 percent in Italy – the lowest in the EU other than Malta,” said Addis.

“The EU average is about 67-70 percent, while the target for all states is 60 percent.

“In the south, where it’s like the 1950s, it’s even worse.”

Meanwhile, Italy’s unemployment rate – at 11.4 percent – still remains one of the highest in Europe, despite dipping slightly over the last few months, and salaries have hardly changed for almost 20 years.

“There is no guarantee of an income for citizens; and most will not think about starting a family unless they have a job. A woman who would like to have a child in Italy could very well become fully dependent on the salary of the father.”

The €80 bonus is currently payable only for babies born between January 1st 2015 and December 31st 2017 up to their third birthdays.

Lorenzin wants to expand eligibility to all under-threes (thereby including those born before 2015) and to extend the provision for an additional three years, covering all babies born up until the end of 2020.

Higher-income families, those with taxable earnings of more than €25,000 per year, are not eligible for the scheme, excluding about a third of parents.

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The allowances are paid at higher rates for the poorest — those declaring less than €7,000 a year to the taxman.

Under the new proposals, the payment for second and subsequent children would be €240/month for average families and €400/month for the poorest.

But compared to countries like France, little has been done to stimulate the birth rate in other ways, such as giving women with children the flexibility to work and assistance with child care.

With children finishing school in most places at around lunchtime, the Italian school system also does little to accommodate working parents, while the cost of nursery care is high.

“A ‘baby bonus’ might help families in financial distress but there is no correlation between giving out money and the birth rate, but there is a correlation between the range of services provided and people having more children,” Addis said.

“Having children is a long-term project. Schools could be kept open until 6pm, freeing up a woman’s time so that she can work, and there should be continual help and assistance while the children are young.”

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