The low birth rate in Taiwan is a source of great concern to its politicians and in recent days have drawn attention to some of the interesting policy ideas they have conjured up to address it.
The number of babies being born in Taiwan has declined steadily in recent years. The country currently sits in the bottom three or four in the Global Rankings, depending on which measure you look at. According to data from the Ministry of the Interior (內政部), numbers continued to drop in the first seven months of this year, with just 110,379 babies being born in Taiwan; a six percent decline on the same period in 2016.
The reasons for this declining birth rate are very much open for discussion. When releasing the statistics for this year, Wanda Chang (張琬宜), director of the Department of Household Registration Affairs claimed it was "the result of fewer marriages and of people choosing to get married when they are older."
This may be a factor. It is certainly true that the overwhelming majority of babies born in Taiwan (more than 96%) are born to married couples. It is still socially unacceptable for many in Taiwan to have a baby out of wedlock. But this is true in many other countries around the world with much higher birth-rates than Taiwan.
The financial barrier to having children
It seems more likely that the simple practicalities of having a baby in Taiwan put a lot of potential parents off. Maternity leave allowances in Taiwan are set at just eight weeks on full pay, while Paternity leave is even lower at just three days.
While there is a legal allowance of up to two years unpaid parental leave, the reality is that wages in Taiwan are so low that most parents cannot afford to take up this option. And the harsh reality is that most employers will not countenance such an arrangement and the chances of you having a job to go back to are slim.
This means that from just 2-months old, parents have to find full-time childcare. Professional childcare is beyond the financial reach of most people and while grandparents will often step in, this is far from ideal and not possible for some. The costs of raising a child are also substantial and as a result, many simple decide not to have children, to have fewer children, or to have children later in life.
So, what solutions have the politicians arrived at to tackle this issue? Their first proposal, to create more state-funded nursery places for 0-2-year olds is to be welcomed. However, such places are currently only available to those families classified as low-income, which omits many who still cannot afford to pay for childcare.
It also begs the question of what to do once your child turns 2-years old. Public kindergartens only accept children from the age of 3 years old, and private kindergartens are often too expensive. So, while the NT$1.1 billion investment included in the current budget proposals is to be welcomed, the policy does need a great deal more thought if it is to have a real effect.
(Image from Pixabay user s9234460)
Free baby boxes
Slightly more bizarrely, the budget proposals also include a provision for NT$200 million to provide parents with childcare kits. Details of what these kits might contain have not yet been released, but there is speculation that it will be a version of the baby boxes which are handed out to all parents after child birth in Finland.
These include baby clothes, sleeping ware, a mattress, some toiletries, bibs, books, all provided in a large cardboard box which parents can use as a crib. While such a scheme might be welcomed by some parents, especially given how much Taiwanese people like free stuff, it is debatable whether the scheme is worth such a huge chunk of public money.
Would people really have a baby just to get hold of a free box of baby stuff? There have also been concerns raised in Finland about the safety of babies sleeping in such boxes.
Meanwhile, Yang Zhiliang, a former head of the Ministry of Health and Welfare (中華民國衛生福利部) has made the slightly insensitive suggestion that while men have to undertake one-year of military service, women under 25-years of age could also be given a year to carry out the "social service" of caring for babies or the elderly.
This proposal has led to inevitable charges of sexism with its implication that such jobs are for women only. But to be generous to him, perhaps he was making a rather confused appeal for proper state-funded care in Taiwan.
Is a higher birth-rate really necessary?
For me, it is debatable whether Taiwan really needs to boost its birth rate at all. Yes, there is an aging population here, but that is the case all around the world. Modern medicine is improving and people are living longer, so this is inevitable.
Politicians should be focused on developing long-term strategies for dealing with a growth in the elderly population rather than simply trying to prompt more babies to balance out the statistics. At present, this burden almost always lies with their children as state-funded care is minimal and almost exclusively for those classified as low-income. Improving provisions would mitigate this issue.
As things stand, Taiwan is hugely over-populated and a decrease in the population and the environmental and economic problems this causes would be welcome. Increasing the number of people in reaction to longer lives makes no sense at all.
But if public money is going to be invested to boost the birth-rate, it must be done not with short-term gimmicks but a long-term vision. This means creating a living environment where people want to have kids and can afford to do so.