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Moscow News
September 7-13, 2005
Experts: Russia Faces Demographic Disaster
Low standards of living are the main cause of the acute demographic crisis that is threatening Russia

By Otto Latsis

The Levada Analytical Center asked Russians four questions: How many children should there be in an "ideal family"? How many children do you have now? How many children do you expect to have within your lifetime? How many children would you like to have if the conditions were ideal?

It turned out that the share of respondents who had a definite opinion on the subject was extremely high: Only 4 percent were not sure about an ideal number of children; 7 percent about the number of children they would like to have; and 9 percent about the number of children they expected to have.

This is where the positive part of the story ends and problems begin.

Child Shortage

For example, only 6 percent of respondents said an ideal family is a family with just one child, 50 percent said two, and 40 percent said three children and more. The average perception of an ideal family is 253 children per 100 families. Respondents are ready to have almost as many - on average 246 children per 100 families - given the right conditions. In other words, a normal family is a family with two or three children. If this was the case, Russia would have no demographic problems since simple reproduction requires an average of 215 births per 100 women throughout their lifetime, while a higher birth rate guarantees population growth. Unfortunately, the average expected number of children according to the survey is only 183 per 100 families, which is not enough even for population reproduction. The actual number of children born into the families surveyed, however, is 151.

So Russia on average has a "shortfall" of one child per family - compared to both an ideal number and a desirable number - the one child that Russia lacks to be able to feel secure and look forward, confidently, to the future. There is something to think about.

A Crisis That Sneaked Up on Russia

The Soviet ruling authorities overlooked the demographic crisis, while the Russian authorities were confronted with it head-on within the first few years of its existence. It was also when the majority of the people also noticed it, learning that the country's population was shrinking. Meanwhile, the average number of births had fallen below the level of simple reproduction - that is to say, below 215 children per 100 women - back in the 1960s. That was when demographers sounded the alarm, warning the ruling authorities about an imminent demographic crisis. Alas, during the stagnation era, the Politburo's educational and cultural level was insufficient to understand the country's demographic problems. It was not until the crisis entered an acute phase - a net population drop - that the authorities had to finally listen to the experts. By now many politicians have heard something about a demographic revolution or a demographic transition.

Demographers explain that in post-industrial society with a large share of urban population, a high level of education, and a well developed healthcare system, the population reproduction model is different than in traditional society. The days when a woman bore 8 to 12 children with only three survivors is history now. Family planning is in, while people have as many children as they think necessary.

Some countries tried providing financial incentives to encourage births. Some paid pretty good money for each child born, but that failed to boost birth rates overall. Family plans changed only with regard to timing. That is to say, the families that planned to have only one child still had only one, except that the birth could have taken place earlier. The freedom of choice is the main achievement of modern society compared to the traditional one, and the modern woman is not going to abandon this freedom. She is ready to have as many children as she needs, while money can be made in other, easier ways.

What the State Can Do

The logical conclusion was: The state is unable to influence the birth rate. The Levada survey expands on this conclusion.

We can see that it is absolutely valid today since both the expected and the actual number of children is less than what is required for simple reproduction. Yet with certain conditions in place, the number of births could be increased. What are these conditions? When asked, "What could influence your decision to have at least one child in the foreseeable future?" 38 percent of respondents said: "Our decision will not depend on any conditions." Some 26 percent, however, are ready to have another child if their incomes increase; 22 percent, if they are confident in the future; 20 percent, if they have better housing. Sixteen percent said they will have one more child if the state takes better care of families with underage children; 15 percent, if they have regular employment; 9 percent, if prices for staple goods do not grow so fast; and 8 percent, if food prices do not grow so quickly.

So, more than one-third of Russians will not respond to the state's efforts to boost the birth rate under any circumstances, with another 9 percent unsure. More than one-half, however, are ready to think about this under certain conditions. Is it difficult to meet these conditions?

A Long Road to Happiness

Let us consider the most salient condition: a higher income. Neither sociologists nor respondents spelled out this formula in detail, but it is not difficult to estimate the range of a desirable income. In a family without any children, husband and wife have a separate income each. In a family with two children where mother does not go to work, one wage income supports four people. In 2004, the average per-capita subsistence level was 2,376 rubles a month; the actual per-capita cash income was 6,337 rubles a month, while the average wage was 6,832 rubles a month.

The average subsistence level for four people is approximately 9,500 rubles a month, or 50 percent more than the average wage today. With the current disposable income growth rates, this difference could be covered within a space of about six years. It should be borne in mind, however, that the current income growth rate is unusually high and may not last long. It should be taken into account that the subsistence level is upwardly revised every quarter of the year. We should also remember that the subsistence level is compared not with the minimum living wage but with the average wage, while people of average means do not necessarily accept a minimum subsistence level as sufficient. Consider that 25.5 million people have incomes below the subsistence level; their wages will have to be increased more substantially to ensure a decent level of support for the children. Finally, factor in millions of people whose incomes are higher than the subsistence level but below the average level. In short, in the best-case scenario, it will take the lifetime of a working generation (about 30 years) to meet this (income) condition alone. Yet there are also such conditions as better housing, confidence in the future, stable employment, assistance to families with children, and slower price growth. It seems that 30 years is the minimum realistic timeframe for meeting these conditions.

What will happen with the Russian population within this brief timeframe? With the current birth and mortality rates, when Russia is on the upturn of another demographic wave, the country's population is declining by 700,000 a year. In less favorable years, this decline goes as high as 1 million. Within 30 years, the population loss will be 20 to 30 million. This is comparable to the total losses not only of Russia, but the entire Soviet Union in World War II. Perhaps there is cause for serious nation-wide discussion about getting our socio-economic priorities right. Put simply, are we fighting for what is worth fighting for?

The aforementioned makes it perfectly clear that the most vital thing for the country's future is to raise the general living standards, address the housing problem, and provide better healthcare and education. If we look at the national budget and its line-item breakdown, however, we will see that the most important expenditure now is military spending. It has been growing the fastest at a time when we have lost the strategic adversary that we have been preparing to fight for half a century. Granted, minimum strategic capability is crucial even in these conditions, otherwise we could risk falling victim to some political pressure. Nevertheless, should the current socio-economic and demographic problems continue, Russia might not live to see this happen. After all, there is the experience of the Soviet Union which strengthened its defense capability until there was nothing left to defend.