#3 - JRL 2009-185 - JRL Home

Moscow News
October 5, 2009
Mini baby boom won’t end crisis
By Anna Arutunyan

For the first time in 15 years, Russia has stopped dying out. In other words, about 1,000 more people were born in August than died, the Health Ministry boasted last week.

The government has touted a modest baby boom as evidence that its stimulus measures aimed at raising the birth rate are working. But demographers say there is little way to tell what exactly has caused a yearly increase of 7 per cent to 8 per cent in the last few years - maternity benefit packages, improving economic conditions, or something else entirely.

Mothers-to-be, meanwhile, show just how idiosyncratic their decisions can be in the wake of the economic crisis.

When Olga, a 27-year-old designer who is eight months pregnant, learned that she was expecting last spring, she quit her job. And now, as unemployment continues to rise, so did her husband. "He just got mad and left," she said. "They offered three days a week, for less pay, and he didn't take it, they were obviously trying to pressure him because there was a baby on the way. So both of us are taking a break. We're going to focus on having a baby and remodeling our house."

Like most of the middle-class women taking pregnancy classes at a central Moscow prenatal centre, Olga was letting her personal biological clock make the decisions. When asked, most of the women said that the economic crisis was somewhere in the back of their minds when they decided to have a baby. But the determining factors were their ages and those of their spouses. Their personal economic comfort ranked somewhere second.

While the latest spike is good short term news, it will hardly dent a far more pervasive demographic crisis, experts said. According to the UN, Russia's population has shrunk by 6.6 million people since 1993, and could lose up to 11 million more by 2025.

"What we are seeing today is a temporary fluctuation," said Igor Beloborodov, director of the Institute of Demographic Studies. "We can't define this as an improvement. The general situation in Russia and in Europe is really a demographic chasm."

Short-term financial measures aren't going to change that significantly, he said. "As society becomes more secularised, and as the family breaks apart, women keep having fewer children. Thirty per cent of babies are born out of wedlock, and up to 60 per cent of marriages fail."

The government has made raising the birthrate by at least 50 per cent a national priority, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev drawing attention to the demographic crisis. Measures since 2006 include larger maternity packages with paid maternity leave for up to 18 months, and full salary compensation for four months. The so-called "maternity capital" gives women who have a second child $10,000 for housing or education.

These measures have certainly had an effect on the latest spike, but they won't solve the demographic chasm, said Sergei Zakharov, a demographics expert at the Higher School of Economics. "But we can't be certain whether this is actually a lasting trend, or that women are merely having the same number of children as planned, only sooner."

In other words, the current rise may be followed by a compensatory drop after about five years. Financial incentives, experts said, only encourage women to have their one or two children sooner. They do not help women to have larger families.

It is also nearly impossible to ascertain what exactly plays a role in increasing the birth rate, Zakharov said.

"The current policy overestimates financial instruments, and completely ignores more serious problems, like the conflict between work and family," Zakharov said. In Beloborodov's words, the only way to "solve" the crisis is to shift the priority towards reestablishing a traditional family structure and encouraging religion, which has been proven to increase the birth rate. "Just look at Saudi Arabia - polls show that women there consider it a necessity to have a lot of children," Beloborodov said.

Evidence that the economic crisis could have a negative effect on the birthrate is inconclusive.

"People's life cycles do not work like economic cycles," Zakharov said. Nor do women seem to be having more abortions as modern contraceptive methods become cheaper and more widespread in Russia. "Women are using contraceptives to delay pregnancies, and we are not seeing a rise in unwanted pregnancies." The abortion rate in Russia - one of the highest in the world - kept falling in 2008.

Doctors, meanwhile, did not give any evidence that the crisis was significantly affecting women's reproductive decisions. "No, the number of women choosing to have an abortion has not increased," said Julia Khromova, a gynaecologist at a private Moscow reproductive clinic.

Women are cutting back on delivery packages at hospitals, however.

"Women were paying about 100,000 rubles [about $3,500] for contracts," said Alexandra Goldina, a nurse and midwife who teaches a pregnancy class in Moscow. "Now, most women won't pay any more than 60,000 roubles, and many aren't paying at all." A contract usually allows women to choose a doctor, to have the husband present during labour, and provides a separate room for recovery. Besides not getting these amenities, "women who give birth for free they aren't necessarily treated very well," Goldina said. "The doctors will do everything that's necessary, but they won't offer additional help or coaching."

There is also a widespread practice of paying a doctor and his team informally to take better care of the patient. The cash varies depending on hospital, but hovers around 20,000 roubles. More women have opted for this informal (and, technically, illegal) arrangement in lieu of the more expensive contracts, Goldina said.

While there is no other statistical evidence that the crisis is affecting the birthrate, all that could still change. "If the crisis is long-lasting," said Zakharov, "that could impact family planning."

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