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ROME – In Italy, the coronavirus pandemic is raising concerns over a long-standing demographic challenge: falling birth rates.

As the country attempts to recover from a third wave of the punitive illness, officials fear this latest public health setback could further undermine enthusiasm to start a family of a generation of parents-to-be already worried about worsening economic prospects for Italy.

Margherita, a 28-year-old communications worker from Rome, who declined to give her last name, said she would like to have two children, but admitted she may only be able to buy one on one given moment in the future.

“If I have kids, I want to give them every chance I had growing up, I think that’s a desire that everyone has,” she said. “But I realize that these days it’s hard to live up to the standards that our parents had.”

This is a feeling that can be seen in official data from Italy. Births fell 10% in December 2020 compared to December 2019, ending a year in which deaths exceeded the number of births by 340,000 people. The population fell by 384,000 inhabitants.

“It is as if in one year we lose the equivalent of the population of Florence,” said Gian Carlo Blangiardo, who heads the Italian statistical agency ISTAT.

In the village of Fascia in Liguria, officially Italy’s oldest middle-aged village, a baby was born in March. It was the first birth there in 23 years.

A long-standing trend

Italy has a reputation as a large family, and for many decades after the country’s unification in 1861, it seemed well founded. Between that year and 2015, the population declined only once – in 1918, as World War I ended and the Spanish flu epidemic took hold.

But in reality, Italian families fell below the average of 2.1 children – considered the level a country needs to maintain its population – in the 1970s, after birth control became more widely available. .

Ten years ago, following the financial crisis of 2008, demographers detected a more marked drop in births. Now they are seeing signs that the 2020 decline may accelerate this year.

According to survey data collected at the end of March and April of last year, as the pandemic broke out in Europe, 36.5% of Italian respondents who planned to have a child in 2020 said they had abandoned these plans.

This compares to 14.2% in Germany and 17.3% in France, where on the contrary, a majority said it had only “postponed” its plans.

More recent research from October painted a similar picture.

Demographers partly attribute this trend to the fact that Italy was particularly affected by the first wave of the pandemic compared to other European countries. But they also note that the declining birth rate in Italy has a longer and more complex history.

Francesco Billari, professor of demography at Bocconi University and president of the Italian Association for Demographic Studies, pointed out a general trend in the developed world: as countries get richer, the average number of children in each family is shrinking.

But once a country reaches a certain level of prosperity, this trend can be reversed. In Sweden and Denmark, for example, governments have invested heavily in social safety nets and early childhood services, which has made parenting less demanding. Birth rates are higher there than in poorer but still developed countries.

Culture is also important. In Italy and a number of other Mediterranean societies, the central role of the family has led governments to take a more practical approach to social assistance and to allow families to fill in the gaps.

This meant a relative lack of state financial support for young people compared to parts of northern Europe, where governments would step in to help with things like scholarships and checks to parents during the period. childhood of their children, said Billari.

This situation is made worse by economic downturns in southern Europe in recent years which have hurt the career prospects of many young people. As their economic situation deteriorated, people were slow to have 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 (typically between 1.5 and 2) than Greece, Spain and Greece. Italy (1.4 or less).

While a declining population is not necessarily a problem as such, the speed of decline seen in Italy potentially leaves elderly care understaffed and pension systems underfunded, Billari added.

Experts say Italy’s slow adoption of gender equality and low participation of women in the workforce are also contributing to the ongoing demographic challenge. Only 53% of adult Italian women work, compared to 67% on average in the EU.

“We underutilize our workforce: Italy is not taking advantage of its female workers,” said Francesca Luppi, demographer at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, co-author of the impact research pandemic on plans for children. “In the context of a family’s budget, given a fragile economy and poor job security, two salaries are very important.”

Italian women are often paid much less than men for similar work, added Luppi. At the same time, child care is expensive compared to other countries, and there is a shortage of supply compared to demand. The number of vacancies in nurseries in Italy in 2018-2019 was 25.5% of the number of babies and young children aged 0-2 years. In the Campania region of southern Italy, that figure was around 10 percent.

“You have to understand that a woman not only has a hard time finding a job, then she has no place to drop off her child,” Luppi said.

Government responses

Like many of its predecessors, the new Italian government claims to have the answers to the country’s demographic challenge. He introduced and is expected to present to parliament the so-called Family Law, a series of measures to support families, encourage couples to have children and help young couples become independent earlier. The proposals are spelled out and primarily funded by the EU’s post-pandemic economic recovery plan, Next Generation EU, of which Italy is the biggest beneficiary.

Introducing the measure ahead of the Senate vote on Tuesday, Prime Minister Mario Draghi referred to 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 people in a position to have families, we must meet their demands, adequate social assistance, a home and a secure job,” he added.

The flagship policy of the Family Law, a universal monthly children’s allowance paid from two months before the birth of the child until the age of 21, has been accelerated thanks to the pandemic and has been approved by the Parliament in March.

Although the amount of the benefit has not been finalized, payments will be made on a sliding scale depending on family income, with the poorest families having to receive between € 150 and € 250 per month and per child.

Family and Equal Opportunities Minister Elena Bonetti told POLITICO that improving women’s participation in the labor market 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, a barrier to a woman’s career … women have to choose between living the work experience or the experience of motherhood.”

Other potential measures include the abolition of national insurance contributions for women after maternity leave, vouchers for nurseries, training for women after having had children and increased paternity leave.

EU funding offers the country the opportunity to tackle the demographic problem, Bonetti said.

The government’s plan to spend EU money includes nearly € 5 billion for nurseries, as well as investments in training for women and plans for full mortgage financing to help young people buy their first property.

Experts have reserved a cautious welcome for the government’s plans.

Lorenzo Bandera, spokesperson for Secondo Welfare, a research institute that studies welfare in Italy, was optimistic about the idea of ​​universal checks, which he said could unlock financial resources that were not available. before.

“It’s about putting resources where they are socially needed to give the country a future,” he said.

Opposition parties backed the family allowance bill in parliament, while warning that it may not help everyone.

Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, told POLITICO that she voted for the measure because her party “is working to put the birth rate and the family back at the center of the political agenda and to face the serious demographic emergency that is facing. Italy. “But it still had” many weaknesses, ranging from insufficient coverage to the risk that many families would find themselves in a worse situation, “she added.

Experts say meeting its demographic challenge could be a long process for Italy.

Statistics chief Blangiardo said there may be a need for a shift in mindset towards the idea of ​​having children “for the collective good”.

“The logic has always been that it’s your decision, if you want kids, you nurture them,” he said. “We have to overcome the idea that other people’s children are an advantage to them.”

“They will help us all,” he added. “They will pay the pensions of those of us who do not have children. We must help those who sacrifice to have children, because they are building the future of all of us as a country.”

This story has been updated.

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