January 30, 2024
SEOUL – The phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is generally recognized for emphasizing the significant effort required to ensure a child’s upbringing in a safe environment, but the proverb holds particular relevance for South Korea as it grapples with a desperate battle to halt or, at the very least, slow the decline in birth rates.
In a race against time, the South Korean government and provincial administrations are rolling out a range of financial incentives and benefits to boost childbirth rates and address the pressing challenge of a deepening demographic crisis.
It is heartening to see the whole nation united to mobilize all available resources on the issue of plunging childbirth rates to the lowest in the world at a time when the surging population of elderly people is posing a threat to both its economy and society as a whole.
With less than three months to go before the parliamentary election, the ruling party and the majority-wielding opposition party both announced campaign pledges aimed at boosting birth rates, centered around financial and other benefits for young people.
The ruling People Power Party’s promises include the establishment of a government agency dedicated to population planning and birth rate boosting and legislation to make it easier for both male and female workers to take paid parental leave without worrying too much about the decline in income.
The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, which hopes the low approval rating of President Yoon Suk Yeol will allow it to retain its majority at the April 10 parliamentary election, also came up with plans to boost child births with the focus on improving the public housing system and loosening loan regulations for parents.
Unlike in the past when the two rival parties used to focus on differentiating their ideological or economic policy orientations, they took aim at developing measures to boost birth rates while trying hard to woo more of the mostly young voters supporting none of the existing parties, who opinion polls suggest make up about one third of the total.
The problem of falling birth rates is worsening at the fastest pace in the world and despite years of government measures, wasting hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer’s money and posing a threat to the foundations of Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
In 2023, the average number of babies expected per South Korean woman dropped to an estimated 0.72, down from the previous record low of 0.78 in the prior year — which was already the lowest in the world — and falling farther away from the replacement rate of about 2.1, the number of births needed to keep the population stable.
Tons of research reports and survey results have been published on the subject, with experts usually pointing to the need to address a complex web of issues keeping families from having babies, ranging from a flawed work culture and high housing and education costs to deteriorating employment opportunities and gender inequality.
Some extreme ideas even propose exempting men with three or more children from compulsory military service, and excluding foreign domestic workers from the minimum wage rule applying across South Korea, according to news reports.
One thing these additional measures share with those already in place is their focus on providing mostly financial or administrative benefits to would-be parents. However, the plunging birth rates in defiance of numerous similar packages make it all too clear: there are so many things in the world that money alone cannot fix, including this birth rate problem.
President Yoon once acknowledged that spending 280 trillion won ($211 billion) over the last 16 years to boost childbirth rates had been a failure and called for “bold and sure measures” to address the crisis. However, the birth rate plummeted even further at a faster pace than before, and the government is still struggling to implement effective plans.
It is certainly past the right time, but it is never too late for us to stop repeating the mistakes of previous governments and to make a fundamental change in the way we approach this issue. The African proverb mentioned at the beginning of this column may provide an invaluable hint to South Koreans: it takes the whole nation to raise a child.
We should first ask ourselves what would make the nation a better and happier place to raise children before splashing yet more money to the current and future parents, especially at a time when slower economic growth generates less tax revenue while national defense and an aging population demand more fiscal spending.
It may take a while until we find more effective and more lasting solutions, maybe beyond the current administration. But we have already waited for more than a sufficiently long time and wasted more than enough money, which turned out to be spent buying votes rather than helping people have more babies.
First ask babies for what kind of nation they want to live in, and then go to politicians and scholars, if needed.