Barcelona Field Studies Centre

To What Extent Can Governments Control Birth Rates?

by Soukeyna Gueye, Kensington School, Barcelona. April 9th 2006

Many countries are experiencing the problems of a youthful or ageing population and have taken measures to try to influence their birth rates since these affect their economy and standard of living. Some measures have been more effective than others, but ultimately government incentives may have little long term influence.

The carrying capacity of a country is important in determining its optimum population. Countries such as China, Singapore and Sweden are trying to bring their population levels back to ones which are neither too large nor too small to be supported by the resources available. If this is then achieved, their people will have a better quality of life due to an increase in services, infrastructure and incomes.

China, in the 1950s and 1960s had been experiencing high birth rates and a decrease in death rates due to improved food supplies and medical care which caused a fall in infant mortality. This resulted in a rapid natural increase as people at that time believed that having more children to work the land meant a higher guarantee for security in old age. But from 1958-1961, there was a 30% fall in the birth rate with 35 million deaths caused by a catastrophic famine. This was brought about by the communist leader Mao who introduced the policy, 'the Great Leap Forward', with the aim of industrialising the country. However, he paid little attention to farming and millions of peasants were made to work in factories. Low agricultural production, with few farmers working on the land, led to severe famines and a natural decrease in the population.

However, from 1963 China experienced a baby boom. Every three years its population increased by 55 million which helped the recovery of its economy. Attempts to control the population growth began in the 1970s as the government was concerned that the carrying capacity of China might not be sufficient to support a population growing at such a fast rate in the future. Measures such as family planning and delaying marriages only succeeded in reducing family size to three children which was still too many. A more drastic policy had to be implemented in order to reduce the population growth rate even further and so the 'one child policy' emerged. To convince families to only have one child, parents were offered a 5-10% salary incentive for limiting their families to one child. Their child would receive free education; they would have priority housing, pension and family benefits.

China: phasing out its one-child policy

But if they did have more than one child they would be given a 10% salary reduction or they could even lose their jobs. In addition they could receive a fine large enough to bankrupt the family and their 'extra' child would not be given a 'household register' (school, jobs). The 'Granny Police' were in charge of checking on couples of childbearing age and they would make sure that families under their charge didn’t break the rules. Contraception and abortion was widely used to reduce pregnancies. However, it has resulted in a population imbalance, with fewer girls than boys due to selective abortion and the dumping of girls. Girls are less useful in rural areas for working in the fields and they do not bring any long term benefit to their parents as they move to live with their husband's parents when they marry. Many married couples did follow the one-child policy which resulted in a decrease in birth rates in the 1970s to 1980s. However, since the 1990s, the crude birth rate has fallen so low that the population is ageing and if nothing is done China's population will shrink. Therefore, the policy has changed to a 'two child policy' in rural villages. In urban areas, women prefer keeping their career instead of bringing up a family. Furthermore, raising a child has also become more and more expensive. The problem of the ageing population in China has made the government consider a 'three child policy' to maintain a low-cost workforce.

Singapore is experiencing a decline in population and in fertility rates. This is a problem since there are now less and less people available to support the increasingly ageing population. This means that there is a strain in the production of resources for health care and other social services. In the late 1950s to the 1970s, there had been population growth of 4% per year. The government convinced people to have fewer children with the slogan 'two is enough'. But in 1984 the government reversed this policy, and started stimulating fertility as the population of the Island was decreasing dramatically.

Singapore: all aboard for the love boat

The population growth was below replacement levels. The most successful achievement at that time was Singapore’s 'baby bonus' packages which included financial incentives to encourage couples to have two or more children. Parents were given a tax relief for having a third child. However, by the 1990s there was only a 1.6% growth in population which was still not high enough. To try to encourage couples to have children, married couples who had children before the age of 28 were offered a 7000 pounds tax break. Several additional measures included government-sponsored matchmaking efforts through a Social Development Unit. Its aim was to 'romance Singapore'. A month-long festival in the Valentine’s period was introduced to try to bring people together. Other measures included rock climbing for couples, a love boat river race, and a vertical marathon called 'lovers’ challenge'. Tango parties, spa packages, and weekend getaways like a 'love boat cruise' to a luxury resort were also included along with numerous other activities. However, these schemes have yet to show any real success.

Sweden today, is experiencing a decline in population, a recurring problem for much of the twentieth century. Its birth rate in 1939 was below replacement levels of 2.2 children per couple. The government needed to take action. A new law prevented employers from dismissing women because of marriage, pregnancy or childbirth. This helped push up the birth rate, as more women were able to marry, have children and keep earning money. In the mid-1940s, a general child allowance was introduced resulting in a peak of 2.5 children per couple. However, this did not last for long as there followed a sharp fall in the birth rate to 1.5 children per woman. The government decided to give increasing support to parents and benefits to families with children, hoping to reverse the trend because an ageing population could bring serious economic challenges. Economic expansion in the 1960s gave increasing opportunities for schooling and higher education, and well paid jobs. Women were able to combine family life and a career. The birth rate as a result increased to more than 2.5 children per woman but this was only temporary since many women found it difficult to balance a full-time job with taking care of the home and children. The birth rate fell in the 1970s to 1.6 children per woman. The early 1980s brought more economic expansion and the birth rate increased to 2.1. Generous parental benefits and improved child care conditions, allowed working women to combine child rearing with work.

However, the shift from economic boom to deep recession and high unemployment in the 1990s put an end to all of these reforms. Efforts to restore the economy led to cuts in almost every area of the welfare system, including parental benefits. The birth rate fell back to 1.5 children per woman at the end of the 1990s, the lowest ever recorded. In the last few years of the decade, child allowances and parental leave benefits were increased. Female employment remained high but fewer women wanted start a family, as they felt uneasy about their economic future. Meanwhile, the population continues to age and both women and men in Sweden want first to work and earn an income of their own before raising a family.

Thus in many countries governments have realised that it is very important to control their birth rates to avoid the problems of over or under-population. In the past, China (1970s), Singapore (1950s-1970s) and Sweden (1960s and 1980s) were experiencing high birth rates which put a strain on education, food supplies, health services and available accommodation. It also meant the risk of a lack of jobs in the future. Today, these same countries are trying to increase birth rates as they face the problems of a growing ageing population and workforce shortage. China's rigid imposition of a one-child policy was ultimately the most successful, allowing an emerging low-cost female workforce to aid its rapid industrialisation. Despite recent efforts to halt the decline, China's birth rate continues to fall. The link between China's industrialisation and declining birth rates, together with the experiences of Singapore and Sweden suggests that the economic situation of a country appears to be more important than government incentives when it comes to families deciding to have children.

Spain adopts baby bonus scheme


 By: Niu Yi Qiao, Barcelona, April 23 2006

For the Chinese, continuing the family line is extremely important. Only boys inherit the surname, and this reason is equally, if not more, important than boys working in the field.

The average death rate for single babies born in Beijing is very low (25/100,000).

Due to the increase in "floating population", the birth rate in Beijing has increased 7 times.

Zhang Weiqing, minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, has recently declared that China will work to maintain its mainland population below 1.37 billion before 2010.

A recent Five-Year Plan (2006-2010) has been established aiming to solve the population problem.

In rural areas, couples above 60 who stick to the One/Two-Child-Policy are eligible for a certificate of honour, as well as 600 Yuan (about 130$) annually for the rest of their lives. This award system has been implemented in 14 provinces and the municipality of Chongqing. The policy has worked to keep population growth down from 26 per cent in 1970 to 7.9 per cent in 2005 and total fertility rate from 5.81 in 1970 to 1.77 in 2002.

China's last birth:
China's current Population: