A baby is a bundle of both joy and despair, of anxiety and elation, of love and sacrifice. However, fewer and fewer Italian couples are having babies, with measurable consequences for the country. What can be done?
Along with Spain, the Italian population is the oldest in Europe, with an average life expectancy rate of 83 years. On one hand, this value highlights the progressive improvement of living conditions, access to healthcare and other national welfare services. On the other hand, the aging population is not balanced enough by new births per capita. From North to South, there has been a gradual decrease in the numbers of bouncing baby Italians: the birth rate lowered by 4% between 2017 and 2018, which in absolute values signifies about 18,000 fewer newborns from one year to the next.
These declining rates have consequences far beyond the nagging parents who want to be nonni, or the lack of baby pictures that you have to scroll past on your Facebook feed. The declining birth rate has serious social and economic consequences that could impact Italy for years to come. According to Tom Bollyky, director of the Global Health Program, a declining global birth rate impacts “climate change, stresses on the environment, food production, everything from the size of the labor force, military might, to economic growth, to the viability of health-care and welfare systems.” In Italy, the problem “concerns the very existence of our country,” in the words of 78-year-old President Sergio Mattarella.
What stops Italians from having babies? The obstacles to new pregnancies emerged in a project promoted by the Italian Ministry of Health in 2018. The study revealed that the willingness to have children is strong, but the decision not to do so are mostly connected to economic motivations. Indeed, the positive aspects of having a family were shared by over 80% of the younger interviewees, but drastically diminished to around 45% among adults. Many cited job-connected constraints: the current household structures are mostly characterized by couples who both have full-time jobs, creating a real need to balance work and family in the event of a new birth. As parental services in many small and medium-sized towns and cities are either scarce or insufficient, young couples are understandably discouraged by the prospect of having children.
Moreover, having a baby isn’t cheap, and Italian couples must consider several factors before deciding to have a baby. According to research from an Italian insurance website, when planning a pregnancy, you need to start budgeting for the higher than expected costs that come with an extra family member, and the count starts even before the birth of the child. Just taking into account the medical appointments, maternal vitamins, clothing, and other essentials for a full term, normal pregnancy results in an average cost of €3.411 for the first child.
These so-called ‘ordinary expenses’ are anything but for many couples. Consequently, even before the joyous day families are forced to apply for loans, open new credit lines, or ask for financial assistance from family members. Of course, after the baby is born the expenses only continue to grow, potentially worsening the economic situation of a fledgeling nuclear family.
Steps (and missteps) towards a government safety net
In recent years, the Italian government has tried to advocate for a change in the mentality of new couples and encourage steady growth rates by attempting to address the lack of an adequate support system to keep families from falling into debt or other economic troubles. This hasn’t always been a huge success: the 2016 online campaign called ‘Fertility Day’, organized by the government to encourage Italians to have more babies, inflamed a debate about why women can’t have kids because they don’t have meaningful support to raise a child in Italy.
The campaign also served as a inappropriately vivid reminder for Italian women that their biological clock is ticking: “you better hurry if you want to have a baby!” — without addressing the fact that adequate support is the real solution to the issue. If prospects for the future are not fair and adequate enough to welcome children, it’s not the fault of the mother, but of the state that she and the father contribute to through their taxes and hard work.
Despite this misstep, some concrete measures are being taken to encourage a baby boom in Italy. Also in 2016, the Renzi government introduced a baby bonus — bonus bebè — to help low and middle-income families, offering them a monthly check ranging from €80 to €160. This measure was a first attempt to support families, and the bonus has been extended to 2020. In 2019, law n°16 established a fund — Fondo assegno universale e servizi alla famiglia — with €1.044 million available for 2021 and €1.244 million for 2022. The spotlight is slowly being put on structuring new public policies to assist couples willing to have children, regardless of their income. Nonetheless, economic aid is only useful if it’s delivered in conjunction with public services tailored to families and couples with newborns. Of course, services are complicated and the process of planning, delivering and adapting them to the regional and local context in Italy is a huge challenge, particularly during a global pandemic, which has significantly impacted the decision to plan for a new pregnancy.
Equal rights, equal responsibilities
In order to build a sustainable safety net, the state must reconcile private life with work-life and the roles that one or more parent plays in raising a child. In particular, the role of new fathers is finally being acknowledged, with the increase to seven compulsory days of paid leave for fathers after the birth of a child. However, the Italian numbers are very low in comparison to other European countries: in Finland, who tops the list, both parents have about seven months each of paid leave. Italy still has a long way to go until the services and support offered to new parents are sufficient to make children a happy prospect rather than a source of anxiety. There must be proper safety nets for families to support them before and after a newborn arrives. Parents must have a guarantee of full accessibility to services such as corporate creches, pre-schools and other early childhood facilities to reduce their worries about balancing work and personal life.
Food, culture, and language are usually the attributes most closely associated with Italian identity, but family is just as important. Perhaps it is our Catholic heritage that makes children such a monumental decision, and perhaps we are supposed to have our lives turned upside down by it. It is, after all, a wonderful thing and for the good of both our country and ourselves, we should be able to encourage more happy birth announcements.
In order for that to happen, we need to know that there is a support system available, that it is sufficient, and that it responds to the needs of parents, children, and the community as a whole. It is a long process that will likely never be perfect or finished, but if it is vital to our economic and cultural survival we should be willing to invest in it. Having a baby is stressful enough, and parenthood is a constant and profound responsibility. But many of us dream about it, and we should be able to have those dreams without wondering how we’re going to pay for them.
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