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ROME — In Italy, the coronavirus pandemic is supercharging concerns over a long-running demographic challenge: Falling birth rates.
As the country tries to recover from a punishing third wave of disease, officials are fretting that this latest public health setback could further sap enthusiasm to start a family from a generation of would-be parents already worried about Italy’s fading economic prospects.
Margherita, a 28-year-old communications worker from Rome, who declined to give her surname, said that she would like to have two kids, but accepted that she may only be able to afford one at some point in the future.
“If I do have kids, I want to give them every possibility that I had growing up, I think it’s a desire that everyone has,” she said. “But I realize that these days keeping up the standards that our parents had is difficult.”
It’s a sentiment that can be seen in Italy’s official data. Births fell 10 percent in December 2020, compared to December 2019, rounding off a year in which deaths outnumbered births by 340,000 people. The population fell by 384,000.
“It is as if in one year we lost the equivalent of the population of Florence,” said Gian Carlo Blangiardo, who heads Italy’s statistics agency ISTAT.
In the village of Fascia in Liguria, officially Italy’s oldest village by average age, a baby was born in March. It was the first birth there in 23 years.
A long-running trend
Italy has a reputation for large families, and for many decades after the country’s unification in 1861, this appeared well-founded. Between that year and 2015 the population fell only once — in 1918, as the First World War was ending and the Spanish flu epidemic was taking hold.
But in reality, Italian families fell below the average of 2.1 children — regarded as the level a country needs to maintain its population — in the 1970s, after birth control became more widely available.
Already a decade ago, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, demographers detected a sharper fall in births. Now, they’re seeing signs that the 2020 drop may gather pace this year.
According to survey data collected in late March and April last year, as the pandemic was breaking across Europe, 36.5 percent of Italian respondents who had planned to have a child in 2020 said they had abandoned those plans.
This compares with 14.2 percent in Germany and 17.3 percent in France, where instead, a majority said they had only “postponed” their plans.
More recent research from October painted a similar picture.
Demographers ascribe this trend in part to the fact that Italy was hit particularly hard by the first wave of the pandemic compared with other European countries. But they also note that Italy’s falling birth rate has a longer and more complex backstory.
Francesco Billari, professor of demography at Bocconi University and president of the Italian Association for Population Studies, pointed to a general trend across the developed world: As countries become wealthier, the average number of children in each family drops.
But once a country reaches a certain level of prosperity, that trend can reverse. In Sweden and Denmark, for example, governments invested heavily in social security nets and early childhood services, which made parenting less demanding. Birth rates there are higher than in countries that are poorer but still developed.
Culture is also important. In Italy and a number of other Mediterranean societies, the central role that the family plays led governments to take a more hands-off approach to welfare and allow families to fill the gaps.
This meant a relative lack of financial support from the state for young people compared with parts of Northern Europe, where governments would step in to help with things like education grants and checks to parents during their kids’ childhood years, Billari said.
This is compounded by the economic slowdowns across southern Europe over recent years that have damaged the career prospects of many young people. As their economic situation has worsened, people have delayed having children, Billari noted. When they do, it’s often just one child.
The net result: Sweden, Denmark and a number of other northern European countries ended up with higher birth rates (generally between 1.5 and 2) than Greece, Spain and Italy (1.4 or below).
While a falling population isn’t necessarily a problem as such, the speed of the decline seen in Italy is potentially leaving elderly care understaffed and pension systems underfunded, Billari added.
Experts say that Italy’s slow embrace of gender equality and low female participation in the workforce is also contributing to the unfolding demographic challenge. Only 53 percent of adult Italian women are working, compared to the EU average of 67 percent.
“We underutilize our workforce: Italy is not taking advantage of its female workers,” said Francesca Luppi, a demographer at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan who co-authored the research on the pandemic’s impact on plans for children. “In the context of a family’s budget, given a fragile economy and low job security, two salaries are very important.”
Italian women are often paid a lot less than men for similar work, Luppi added. At the same time, child care is expensive compared to other countries, and there’s a lack of supply compared with demand. The number of vacancies at creches in Italy in 2018-2019 was 25.5 percent of the number of babies and toddlers between the ages of 0 and 2 years old. In the region of Campania, in the south of Italy, that figure was about 10 percent.
“You have to understand that a woman doesn’t just have a hard time finding a job, she then doesn’t have a place to drop off her kid,” Luppi said.
Like several of its predecessors, Italy’s new government claims to have the answers to the country’s demographic challenge. It has laid out and is set to introduce in parliament the so-called Family Act, a raft of measures to support families, incentivize couples to have children and help younger couples become independent earlier. The proposals are set out in and mostly funded by the EU’s post-pandemic economic recovery plan, Next Generation EU, of which Italy is the biggest beneficiary.
Presenting the measure ahead of a Senate vote Tuesday, Prime Minister Mario Draghi cited the country’s extremely low birth rates in Europe: “[Italy’s] plan for the next generations must recognize our demographic future.”
“To put our young in condition to have a family, we must respond to their requests, adequate welfare, a home and secure work,” he added.
The Family Act’s flagship policy, a monthly universal child benefit paid from two months before the child is born until they are 21, was accelerated thanks to the pandemic, and was approved by parliament in March.
While the size of the benefit has not been finalized, the payments will be on a sliding scale depending on a family’s income, with the poorest families expected to receive €150-250 a month per child.
Minister for Family and Equal Opportunities Elena Bonetti told POLITICO that improving women’s participation in the workforce will be crucial.
“In our country we have built a work system that excludes the choice of motherhood,” she said. “Motherhood is seen as a cost, an obstacle to a woman’s career … women have to choose between living the experience of work or the experience of motherhood.”
Potential further measures include scrapping national insurance contributions for women after maternity leave, vouchers for nurseries, training for women after having children, and increased paternity leave.
The EU funding provides an opportunity for the country to address the demographic problem, Bonetti said.
The government’s plan for spending the EU money includes almost €5 billion for nurseries, as well as investment in training for women, and plans for full financing of mortgages to help young people buy their first property.
Experts have given the government’s plans a cautious welcome.
Lorenzo Bandera, a spokesperson for Secondo Welfare, a research institute that studies welfare in Italy, was hopeful about the idea for universal checks, which he said could unlock financial resources not previously available.
“It’s putting resources into where they are needed socially to give the country a future,” he said.
Opposition parties supported the child benefit legislation in parliament, while warning that it may not help everyone.
Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right party Brothers of Italy, told POLITICO that she voted for the measure because her party is “working to put the birth rate and family back at the center of the political agenda and address the serious demographic emergency facing Italy.” But it still had “many weaknesses, from insufficient coverage to the risk that many families could end up worse off,” she added.
Experts say that addressing its demographic challenge could be a long process for Italy.
Statistics chief Blangiardo said it might take a change in mentality toward an idea of having children “in the collective interest.”
“The logic has always been that it is your decision, if you want children you maintain them,” he said. “We need to get over the idea that the children of others are a benefit for them.”
“They will help all of us,” he added. “They will pay for the pensions of those of us that have no children. We need to help those who make the sacrifice of having children, as they are building the future of all of us as a country.”
This story has been updated.
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