As a largely Catholic country, it might be expected that Spain’s birth rate level would be consistently high. However, in recent times, concern has been raised here (as well as in Italy, another Catholic nation) about the relatively low number of babies being born. Currently, Spain’s birth rate is well and truly in the doldrums: although recent figures show that, for instance, in Catalunya birth rates rose by 4.4 percent between 2002 and 2007, for almost two decades the national level has languished at half what it was in the Seventies. In the face of this ongoing problem, the Spanish government is looking to encourage people to have more children—but will it work?
The birth rate in Spain is among the lowest in the world, according to statistics from the United Nations. In 2007, the nation’s rate of 10.8 births per 1,000 population placed it in the bottom quartile of all the countries listed. Even the People’s Republic of China, with its well-established family limitation policies, managed a birth rate 20 percent higher than Spain’s. And Barcelona’s 2007 birth rate was a fifth lower than Spain’s average, at 8.8 per 1,000 head of population, a rate that has been relatively stable over the last five years. Just to maintain its current population levels, Spain needs 2.1 births per fertile woman, but has only 1.3.
While the nation’s overall population has been increasing (from 36 to 45 million) in the last 25 years, its demographic profile has been shifting. There are now twice as many over-65s in Spain as there were just 10 years ago, and if current trends continue, the numbers of those that are economically active is estimated to reduce by 40 percent by 2050. This, in turn, will have a serious impact on the amount of social security payments being made to the national coffers.
The bottom line is that to achieve its social and economic goals (as well as to meet the increased costs of welfare and health services), Spain needs to boost the proportion of the population that pays taxes. The situation in both Barcelona and the nation could become even graver if the economic crisis seriously reduces the flow of immigrants, because without them birth rates would be even lower than they are. In fact, in 2003, immigrant groups accounted for one in seven of Barcelona’s births, and in 2007 accounted for one in five.
In 2007, the Spanish government decided to take action. President Zapatero presented a bold social-engineering initiative to Parliament saying, “To keep progressing, Spain needs more families to produce more children. And to have these children, families will need more financial support.”
Zapatero announced the introduction of a cheque-bebé (baby bonus) from November 2007 onwards, a lump sum of €2,500 for each woman legally resident in Spain who gives birth or adopts a child. The amount increases to €3,500 for single mothers, mothers of children with disabilities and from the third child onwards. By October 2008, 520,000 families had applied for the payment, at a cost to Spanish taxpayers of some €1.3 billion.
Set against a survey done in December 2007 by British insurance company Liverpool and Victoria Friendly, which found that the cost of bringing up a child in the EU is a staggering €150,000, €2,500 might seem a drop in the ocean. But for many it will be a welcome boost to the household budget, particularly at a time when it’s under pressure from rising costs and economic gloom. The big question is whether Spain’s baby bonus will be enough to re-invigorate the nation’s flagging baby production.
Of course, identifying what solution will work also involves finding out the cause of the problem, and in this case there are various factors at work. Among them is abortion. One in six of all Spanish pregnancies ended in abortion in 2007, according to the Federación de Planificación Familiar Estatal (National Family Planning Federation); the previous year in Catalunya, the number was even higher at one in five. The procedure is only officially allowed here in the case of rape, severe foetal defect or when the physical or mental health of the mother is at risk. Nonetheless, 100,000 abortions were performed in Spain during 2007 (twice that of 15 years ago) with an increasing number of women using mental health risk as the justification.
And Spain’s current abortion numbers look set to rise even further if proposals by Bibiana Aido, Spain’s Equality Minister, to allow termination ‘on demand’ up to the 24th week of pregnancy, go ahead. “The new law we are proposing will protect the fundamental rights of women who freely decide to interrupt their pregnancies, and those of the medical staff who assist them,” Aido announced last September.
Another reason for the fall in births is that family profiles have changed. The average size of a Spanish family has shrunk by a quarter in the last 30 years, and the number of Spanish families with three or more children has fallen by a third over the same period. Today, two and a half million Spanish people live alone, a statistic that has doubled since 1990.
At a local level, Josep Camargo, a former inhabitant of central Barcelona who now lives in Lliçà de Vall with his wife and two children, told Metropolitan, “For our generation, both parents have to work to maintain the family’s economic status. We wouldn’t have the time to dedicate to a larger family, as our parents did. In their day, having four or five children was the norm. I don’t think the baby bonus will encourage many Spanish families to have more children, though it would be of help to some low income groups, especially immigrants.”
So the big question for all those involved in Spain’s social and economic development is: will the government’s new bonus scheme deliver? Babies, that is. It’s too early to tell at the moment, as no official statistics will be available until later this year.
One potential barometer of the effectiveness of Spain’s incentive scheme might be the money spent in shops such as Catimini, an infant clothes business with outlets all over the country. Jaume Borda, manager of the Catimini shop on Las Ramblas, told Metropolitan, “Personally I don’t think the baby bonus will make any difference to people’s family planning. It’s what it says it is, a bonus, something extra, not the reason for having a child. We’ve seen no extra sales since it was introduced.”
Another way to gauge the effectiveness of such schemes is to look at other countries’ experiences. Both Germany and Australia are going through the same kind of ‘birth bust’ as Spain, and they set up baby bonus schemes two and four years ago respectively.
In an effort to gather information, the Australian government set up a blog inviting parents to post their views on the influence the bonus had on their family planning. Comments ran the gamut, from, “Without the payment, we simply couldn’t have contemplated starting a family”, to “The money’s useful, but it would never be a deciding factor in having a child”, as well as more controversial statements such as, “The baby bonus only encourages those least able to parent.”
Putting aside an initial blip when hospitals in both Germany and Australia were inundated with requests for information on how to delay birth (and thus qualify under the new bonus regime), there has since been an increase in birth rates of less than three percent for Germany, and four percent for Australia. Whilst the increases may well be a result of the baby bonuses, there is no hard evidence that establishes a direct causal link.
So what is the outlook for Spain’s lacklustre birth rate? Australia and Germany’s experiences suggest that if baby bonus schemes work at all, then they do so only marginally. Factor into the equation the proposed liberalisation of abortion laws and the continuing changes in Spanish family profiles, and the hoped-for baby boom in Spain looks optimistic to say the least. Nonetheless, the official message from the government going out across the land is loud and clear: ‘Your country needs you. Go forth and multiply.’