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What is Italy’s government doing about the falling birth rate?

Clare Speak
Clare Speak - [email protected]
What is Italy’s government doing about the falling birth rate?
Italy's low birth rate continues to make headlines, but many Italians say they would like to have more children. Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP.

As the Italian government prepares its 2024 budget, one thing many are hoping to see is increased financial help for families in a country where the plunging birth rate regularly makes headlines.

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Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's government has had a lot to say about protecting the ‘traditional’ family since taking power last year. Now, the upcoming budget law for 2024 is being seen as a test of its commitment to those families - and to tackling the causes of Italy's plunging birth rate.

Many are asking if the budget will include increased financial support for those with young children, or measures addressing chronic problems which often discourage or prevent Italians from starting a family at all.

Such measures are widely seen as overdue. Since 2014, the birth rate has been steadily dropping every year and the average age of people in the country has been rising (now at 46.4 years, with a quarter of the population aged over 65.)

Italy’s shrinking population - on course to fall by one fifth by 2050 - is set to become a major economic problem for the country, requiring either huge tax increases or severe pension cuts to solve.

A change to the trend looks unlikely amid soaring inflation and the cost of living crisis, as rising rents and Italy’s generally low and stagnant wages have long been cited as reasons why so many young adults are unable to afford to start a family - with many unable to leave their own family home until their late 20s or beyond.

READ ALSO: How does the cost of childcare in Italy compare to other countries?

Surveys have repeatedly shown however that many Italians would like to have more children. More than one in two people in Italy (57.4 percent) has at least one child, and a third of these would like to have at least one more. Among those who do not have children, 40 say percent would like to, according to research by the University of Padua published by financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore in February.

The same research showed that the reasons people delay or decide not to have children are mainly linked to cost, which was the main obstacle for almost 70 percent of those surveyed. The fear of losing a job or suffering "negative professional consequences" was also a major factor for 60 percent.

And more than half (53.5 percent) also cited a lack of services for families (such as public nursery places, which Italy has a chronic shortage of.)

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So will Meloni, Italy’s first woman prime minister, be the one to change a longstanding trend of governments failing to address the structural and economic issues driving population decline?

Voters may well expect her to. Meloni swept to power last year following an election campaign full of promises to uphold traditional, Catholic family values. She regularly describes herself in speeches as a “Christian mother” and she and her supporters use Mussolini’s former slogan of “Dio, patria, famiglia” (‘God, fatherland, family’).

Though her government created a ministry for la famiglia, la natalità e le pari opportunità (family, birth and equal opportunities) policy in this area so far has been focused on discouraging abortion, preventing Italians from seeking surrogates, including abroad, and limiting the parental rights of same-sex couples.

In fact, in the year since it came to power, the only concrete financial aid the government has provided to families came in the form of halved VAT (to 5 percent) on nappies and formula milk - a measure which was widely criticised as ineffective.

READ ALSO: The real reasons young Italians aren't having kids

The 2024 budget will be the real test of whether there is “an effective political will” to address the declining birth rate, stated Gigi De Palo, president of the influential Catholic group Fondazione per la natalità (Birth Foundation), which in May organised a major event centred around discussion of Italy’s birth rate at which Pope Francis and Meloni spoke.

“It is already late” for a government to introduce “serious policies” on the issue, De Palo said.

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This budget is the first one Meloni’s government has had complete control over: after winning elections in September 2022, it inherited a 2023 budget plan already largely prepared by former prime minister Mario Draghi.

While Meloni recently said there are “limited margins” for public spending - and her budget is expected to make cuts overall - Economy Minister Giancarlo Giorgietti last week confirmed that there will be “measures for families and birth rates” included in the budget plan, without giving details.

Family, birth and equal opportunities minister Eugenia Roccella told a talk show hosted by newspaper Il Messaggero at the end of September that the government was looking to increase the rate of child benefit, particularly for couples who have a second child.

READ ALSO: How much does it cost to raise a child in Italy?

Until 2020, Italy lacked any comprehensive child benefit policy. The current form of child benefit, known as the assegno unico e universale or 'single check', is often criticised for being too low (with the minimum monthly payment now set at between 54 and 189 euros per child, depending on the family’s income) and for a cumbersome claims process which often results in delays or means some people are unable to access the funds.

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The government is also looking at “further measures for large families with at least three children”, including potential income tax cuts, Roccella said, as well as introducing a “second-child package” and financial incentives for companies that hire mothers.

Any increases to child benefit and other measures will reportedly be funded using some 1.5 billion euros which was allocated for the assegno unico last year, but went unclaimed.

More should be known about the government’s budget plan by October 20th, the deadline for the bill to be presented to parliament - though  based on past years’ budgets, weeks or months of debate and amendments are likely to follow, meaning nothing will be known for sure until towards the end of the year.

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