|CAN RUSSIA HAVE A BABY BOOM?
MOSCOW. (Alexander Yurov, RIA Novosti political commentator) -
Russian birth rates are veiled in mystery—not that the adult population
is ignorant of the facts of life. What I mean is that it baffles
demographers just why Russian women have recently started having more
children than before, and experts are at a loss as to how to send birth
rates further up.
It is a long established fact that Russians have few children and the
population is dwindling disastrously.
Government statistics prove, however, that Russian birth rates are on a
par with German or Italian, with the same 1.3-1.5 babies per woman of
reproductive age. More than that, the annual number of births has
skyrocketed to more than 800,000 from the 380,000 of the mid-1990s.
Statistics disprove another public misconception, of large Muslim
families. As it really is, there are slightly less than two births per
Arab woman—a rate that has been steady for several years now in Arab
countries. Be all that as it may, the Russian population is shrinking,
which means the problem is rooted not only in birth rates.
Experts have blamed the high abortion rate, but that is not the heart of
the matter, says Tatyana Maleyeva, Independent Social Political Studies
Institute director. High death and emigration rates are the most important
factors responsible for the population decline. Low birth rates come only
third on the list. Russia is sliding to simple population reproduction,
she warns. The situation now depends on what the authorities will do about
it. Material incentives alone cannot remedy the situation.
The choices people make in the course of their lives are conditional on a
wide range of factors, which vary from group to group. Some people cannot
afford to have a baby, while others need a nanny, a good kindergarten and
reliable partners to have a big family. Working mothers need longer
maternity leaves and flexible work schedules. In short, the Russian
demographic situation now depends on how far the authorities are prepared
to go with social and demographic incentives.
The authorities have started tackling the problem by offering material
incentives. A federal program to be launched at the start of next year
promises every mother of two or more children a 250,000 ruble (roughly
$10,000) grant per baby.
There are many provisos to the benefit: the mother cannot have access to
the account before the child reaches the age of three, and the money can
be spent only on the child’s education or better housing. The mother can
also add the sum to her future pension. Monthly maternity grants, paid
before the baby reaches 18 months, have been increased to 3,000 rubles as
of January 1.
The government will pay 20 percent of kindergarten fees for one-child
families, 50 percent for two children, and 70 percent for three. For
people living in the less prosperous parts of Russia 3,000 rubles is a
substantial amount. It is an average monthly pension all over the country.
Many prominent Russian demographic experts, however, do not think women
can be bribed into having more kids. They do not find government measures
adequate, and some think they are downright destructive. What they can
lead to is that some women will have babies just to get the grants, and
abandoned children will be flocking to orphanages in a year or two, warns
Yevgeny Gontmakher, Social Studies and Innovations Center research
supervisor, and recent head of the federal government Social Development
Anatoly Vishnevsky, Demography and Human Ecology Center director, shares
his skepticism about material incentives, and proposes many others. All
the preliminary research was done in Russia as early as the late 1980s and
early 1990s, but the government did nothing to follow up on the results,
and is continuing to ignore the experts.
At a seminar on increasing the birth rates in Russia, Yevgeny Yasin,
Higher School of Economics research director, pointed out that demographic
problems were taking a critical turn. On the other hand, he remarked, the
president has called for a baby boom, and people are extremely receptive
to his ideas. Demography overnight became a burning issue of interest to
all. It was previously in oblivion—as if it was no one’s concern.
Be that as it may, the Russian government proceeds from an economic
practice tested in many countries. For example, the European Union
demanded that Poland increased all welfare benefits as a membership
proviso. Poles resisted as long as they could—they knew higher social
security payments would send unemployment up.
They were right in their apprehensions: 20 percent of the working age
population have no jobs now—as against 10 percent in present-day Russia.
However, Poland also benefited from larger welfare benefits as they
increased the workforce cost. The new government program in Russia is
expected to lead to similar results.
Clearly, only sustainable families are going to have two or more children,
program or no program, and no grants will influence their decision. The
crucial factors are psychology and relationships between people. All that
gives us sufficient grounds to expect maternity grants to reward mothers
for their previous determination to have babies irrespective of