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Russia Profile
September 6, 2007
Where Have All the Children Gone?
Can Russia Reverse its Demographic Crisis?

Comment by Michael Akerib

In 2000, newly elected President Vladimir Putin said that the most important issue facing Russia was its demographic decline, which currently numbers around 750,000 people per year.

Given the present fertility rate, Russia's population will have shrunk by one-third by 2050, bringing it back to the low level of 1950 - 103 million, in a country still reeling from the massive population losses due to the Second World War. There are 1 million fewer children of school age in Russia today than in 1999. In the future, Russia is likely to have a smaller population than many of its neighbors, such as Iran and Turkey. To even maintain current population levels, Russian women should average 2.5 children, as opposed to today's rate of 1.2. This is a most unlikely development.

In 2006, the number of children born in Russia was 1.5 million, while in 1987, the figure was 2.5 million. In light of these figures, the 2005 study by the Levada Center seems surprising. According to the results of its interviews, 50 percent of respondents believed the ideal family has 2 children, while 40 percent stated it had 3 or more. But many people are prevented from achieving this ideal due to factors such as insufficient income, lack of confidence in the future, poor quality housing, lack of state aid, difficulties in holding down regular employment and high prices.

These reasons could lead to the conclusion that birth rates will increase as living conditions improve. There are, however, a number of other reasons for the low birth rate. Many Russian women, like their Western counterparts, have chosen to focus on their careers rather than family. Less than half of all Russian women are married; and while many Russians live with a partner of the opposite sex, these relationships are less likely to lead to the birth of a child. Statistics show that although one-third of all Russian children are born out of wedlock - a figure similar to that of the United States and lower than the 50 percent of children born to unmarried couples in the UK, studies also show that married couples have three times more children than unmarried ones.

Secondly, low levels of health care have resulted in 7 percent of the population - 4 million men and 6 million women - being sterile. This is twice the level of in developed countries. The main reason for this staggering figure is the recourse to abortion as the prevailing method of contraception and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Syphilis, for instance, is believed to be 100 times more prevalent in Russia than in the EU. Additionally, up to 10 percent of pregnant women miscarry, primarily due to malnutrition.

Sterile women could benefit from adequate treatments or assisted reproductive technology, but treatments are too expensive for the average Russian citizen.

State Solutions

Historically, government action to increase birth rates in Russia has been slow, generally lacking coordination and with little or no positive result, and today's efforts are no exception. In 1941, Stalin introduced a childless tax - men and women in certain age brackets had to pay up to 6 percent of their income if they were childless - but the success of this measure was scant and it was also discontinued. In the 1980s, the Soviet government tried again to introduce measures to increase the birth rate, and while they were successful for a few years, they did not have a significant impact on the birth rate and were discontinued.

The long and largely unsuccessful transition from a central economy to a market one created large numbers of working poor, who have refrained from having children. Even those who remain optimistic have postponed having a family, making it more likely that they will have only one child.

The government's most recent initiative has been to throw money at mothers, paying them to have a second or third child. In May 2006, family allowances were doubled for the first child and multiplied by four for the second child. A one-time payment of 250,000 rubles ($9,700) will also be deposited in a special account after a second child is born, but will be released only when the child is three and its use is limited to expenses that will primarily benefit the child, such as tuition or mortgage payments.

Several criticisms of this policy have been made. There is some fear that people would decide to have more children simply for the increased payment, which would, in the long run, increase the number of underfed, ill and undereducated children. Others feared that the new incentives would result in a transfer of funds to Russia's Muslim minority, who already have a higher birth rate than Christian Russians, thereby increasing their power in the country.

The higher birth rate in the Muslim population has already translated into a higher proportion of Muslims in the young population; nearly 13 percent of children aged between 0-4 are Muslim, compared to 10 percent in the population as a whole.

This difference cannot be attributed to economics - on average, Russia's Muslims have lower salaries, higher unemployment rates and generally worse living conditions than non-Muslims, but their conservative social policies mean that Muslim women are less likely to have abortions or use birth control and Muslims are less likely to divorce.

In general, paying women to become mothers is generally not a successful proposition - in order to give women a truly appropriate sum, the funds required would be gigantic and no state could afford such a policy to boost birth rates to the required level.

Countries, such as Estonia, that have seen a sizable increase in birth rates because of income-related financial incentives, have nevertheless been unable to stop the overall population slide: even a 20 percent increase in the birth rate will do little to stop Russia's demographic decline considering the present fertility rate is one of the world's lowest.

France is perhaps the one happy exception and one of the very few EU countries to have avoided a collapse in its birth rate, but this success has come at a cost - 4.5 percent of total GDP. The contribution of France's immigrant Muslim population to the birth rate is difficult to measure, but is believed to be important.

Following the European model?

Generally, with very few exceptions, birth rates are declining worldwide and even in wealthy countries, parents fear the cost of raising children. In most developed countries, however, total population numbers have remained stable due to prolonged life expectancy. Demographers have suggested that we are witnessing a natural correction of the birth rate in the face of a major decrease in mortality over the last century; this mechanism would serve to avoid a population explosion.

The birth rate in nearly all European countries has dropped over the last 50 years, although at different speeds and spread over time. The drop was constant in the Northern countries, while in the Mediterranean it dropped in stages - dropping, stabilizing then dropping again to reach a low of 1.3 children per woman. The fall of Communism and the end of free child care led to the same result in the Central European countries.

Everywhere in Europe, women seem content to have one child, in contrast with 1960, when nearly half of European women had two or more children. That year is notable because it is the beginning of the contraceptive revolution in Northern and Western Europe, which only reached Southern Europe twenty years later.

A reversible trend?

New statistics out Monday show that Russia's birth rate has indeed risen over the past year, with births up 6.5 percent in 2007 compared with the same period last year. But it would be wrong for Russian authorities to rest on their laurels. Investments must be made in preventive health care to ensure a substantially higher level of maternal care, and thus a significantly reduced number of stillbirths or children born with low birth weights and other preventable health problems.

More should also be done to assist infertile women who want children. IVF technology is quite advanced in Russia, though the cost is prohibitive for most Russian families. Further development of these technologies would have the added advantage of developing Russia as a premier center in this medical specialty and drawing patients from other European countries, effectively competing with Spain.

Unless remedies are applied rapidly, Russia risks falling into a fertility trap. A smaller population today means fewer children in the future, even if the birth rate increases. Young people brought up in families with one child see them as the norm, and in turn reproduce this pattern. This is already happening in Germany, for example.

The French demographer, Chaunu, once stated that if a human group sustains a negative growth curve for 10 or 20 years, it totally destroys itself. Will this happen to the Russian Slavs, or even to the entire European population?

Time will tell, but the odds are not very much in favor of a resurgence of the European population. History is replete with civilizations that have disappeared. The tell tale signs are already present, and we should urgently act to avoid a population collapse.