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Fewer Babies Concerns Central European Leaders

Children play in a baby-friendly cafe in Budapest, Hungary, January 28, 2020. (REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo)
Children play in a baby-friendly cafe in Budapest, Hungary, January 28, 2020. (REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo)
Fewer Babies Concerns Central Europe
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Central European and Balkan leaders are worried about falling demographics. So, they are calling on families to have more children to stop the decrease.

Some of the appeals for more babies are like those made many years ago in Fascist or Communist countries. They include appeals to nationalism and family values as well as big tax cuts and awards to larger families.

Liberal critics accuse populist governments of using the depopulation threat to support nationalist programs and limit women’s rights. But government officials note that unless they can stop falling birth rates, governments will not be able to finance the pensions and health-care costs of aging generations.

The struggle to increase native-born populations and produce more young workers to pay for future costs is tied to immigration. Young people are leaving Central Europe in ever larger numbers for better pay in Western European countries.

In Hungary, the fertility rate has dropped to 1.49 live births per female, while the rate needed to support current population levels is 2.1. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has offered housing assistance as well as reducing home loan payments in an effort to increase births.

His government has offered to cancel income taxes on women who raise four or more children. Women marrying under the age of 40 can receive a $36,000 government loan that they do not have to repay after their third child is born.

Last month, Orban announced the state takeover of six fertility centers, which now offer free in-vitro fertilization treatments. The free treatments started on February 1, when Orban declared fertility an issue of strategic importance to Hungary.

“If we want Hungarian children instead of immigrants…then the only solution is to spend as much of the funds as possible on supporting families and raising children,” he said last month.

In Poland, the government provides a monthly allowance of about $125 per child to families after their first child. The program has become a model for depopulating neighboring countries also struggling with falling birth rates.

But Central Europe’s interest in demographics is worrying women and liberals. They fear that governments led by populist parties are paying for larger families not only for demographic reasons, but as a way to buy votes.

They accuse populists of wanting to return to patriarchal times when women were limited only to having children, not careers outside the house. They see free IVF as something out of Margaret Atwood’s best-selling book, The Handmaid’s Tale.

“Can we just simply declare that Hungary is Gilead from now on,” asked Hungarian reporter Anita Komuves on Twitter. Gilead is the name of Atwood’s made-up country.

Demographic experts wonder whether the Central European cash-for-babies campaigns will do much to affect population growth. They point to Russia as an example. Russia’s long-running program of paying for large families has done little to increase birth rates. The country’s population is expected to drop from 142 million to 110 million by the year 2050.

Central European governments are not alone in worrying about shrinking populations and the aging of Europe. Croatia is the world’s fifth-fastest shrinking nation. It has made demographics an important issue during its six months heading the European Union presidency.

Even Italy is worried about its falling birth rate. New births are at the lowest number since records began in 1861. The government is paying for free child care and extending time off for new fathers.

Greece has one of the lowest birthrates in Europe. It is now offering mothers nearly $2,200 for every newborn child, as well as tax breaks.

I’m Susan Shand.

VOA’s Jaime Dettmer reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

demographic – n. a group of people that has a particular set of qualities

Fascist – adj. a way of organizing a society in which a government ruled by a dictator controls the lives of the people and in which people are not allowed to disagree with the government

pension – n. an amount of money that a company or the government pays to a person who is old or sick and no longer works

income – n. money that is earned from work, investments, business

in-vitro – adj. a baby conceived outside the body

strategic – adj. useful or important in achieving a plan or strategy

allowance – n. an amount of money that is given to someone regularly or for a specific purpose

patriarchal – adj. a man who controls a family, group, or government