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‘We took the family for granted’: Leaders grapple with Italy’s accelerating birth crisis

shutterstock 486105232 Empty wooden crib. Image via Shutterstock

Leaders in Italy’s public and private sectors will meet Friday to discuss the country’s dismal birth rate in a high-profile event including Pope Francis and Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

The country faces a demographic crisis, as experts predict that the already low European birth rate will be further affected by the coronavirus pandemic, which has already hit the Italian economy especially hard.

The situation “is no longer sustainable,” commented Gigi De Palo, president of the Family Associations Forum, the group organizing the May 14 event.

The association promotes pro-life and pro-family policies at the governmental level, and De Palo has been an outspoken advocate for relief of the Italian tax burden on families.

“It’s true that Italians love the family and that Italians love children, but it’s difficult,” he told CNA. “In Italy, the primary cause of poverty is job loss by one member of the family. The second is the birth of a child.”

Statistics from 2015 show that Italian families with two children have higher rates of poverty than families with one.

De Palo noted that the number of children that Italian women say they want -- more than 80% say two -- is not being played out in actual births, which is at a rate of around 1.29.

The association president said he thought that if Italy had the same level of public family assistance as Germany and France, it would have a higher birth rate than those countries because the desire for children is so strong.

“Only we took the family for granted,” he said.

At the May 14 meeting, called “The General State of the Birth Rate,” Gian Carlo Blangiardo, president of Istat, Italy’s national statistics institute, will present previously unpublished data and projections on where the country’s fertility is headed in the coming decades.

Blangiardo told CNA ahead of the event that “the diagnosis is clear.”

“There’s no need to repeat ourselves [about] why people are having few children in Italy,” he said, explaining that the reasons behind the country’s near-steady 50-year decline in births can be summed up as: “children cost, children cause limitations, children make work more difficult for mothers, children sometimes do not have a place in which to be cared for -- the preschool, the daycare and other things of this kind -- and the cultural climate does not reward families that have children.”

Blangiardo wants the state to take advantage of the European Union’s post-pandemic recovery fund to lighten these obstacles to parenthood, calling it “maybe the only opportunity we have.”

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“So, these are the points on which to act, the levers on which to intervene,” he said. “We know what the cure is, we have, as I said before, fortunately, for the first time perhaps in 10 years, the opportunity to have some resources with which to buy the ‘medicine.’”

After Pope Francis and Draghi, Friday’s event will also feature company executives, journalists, actors, athletes, and Italy’s family and education ministers.

Elena Bonetti, Minister of the Family and Equal Opportunities, called the low fertility rate a “primary challenge for Italy and for Europe.”

She said “The General State of the Birth Rate initiative has come at the right time to put pro-family policies in place in the state, especially those which promote having children, education, and the participation of women in the workforce.”

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Less than half of Italian women have work, even part-time, while the country’s salaries tend to be low, making it difficult for families to meet even basic monthly expenses on just one income.

The government’s latest effort at raising the fertility rate is the Family Act, which will be mostly funded by the EU recovery plan. The Family Act includes a long list of measures to incentivize families to have children and to help young couples get on their feet.

The legislation’s major policy is a monthly universal child benefit paid from two months before a child’s birth until age 21. It also includes funds to improve the scarcity of preschools in the country.

Putting the legislation into action is one of the priorities for Bonetti’s department in the coming months.

In Blangiardo’s estimation, Italy should aim to raise the birth rate by a very modest 0.6 at the end of 10 years, which would lead to roughly an additional 100,000 births per year.

“Obviously it’s not a radical transformation, it is not an absolute change,” he said, “however, it’s a contribution which is absolutely extremely important, because -- let’s not forget -- the alternative is the continued decrease in birth rate.”

A family policy expert told CNA last year that the Italian government’s past efforts at pro-birth policies, such as a “baby bonus” and subsidized leave, have had little success in raising the birth rate.

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According to Vincenzo Bassi, people do not decide to have more children because they will receive a financial bonus -- it requires something more drastic.

If we want to encourage people to take on the sacrifice of having children, the family needs to be valued by society at large, he said.

Philip Jenkins, a historian who published a book last year on fertility rates and religion around the world, said that pro-family policies can raise the birth rate, but they work very slowly and are very expensive.

With Italy’s $315 billion from the EU, “we have the resources” to put policies in place which will “resolve some of the problems blocking fertility,” Blangiardo said.

Pope Francis has described Europe’s low birth rate as a result of a “disregard for families” and “a sign of societies that struggle to face the challenges of the present.”

Da Palo said that he invited the pope to give a greeting at Friday’s meeting because he wanted someone “who would also speak about hope, because having a child today is also connected to having hope, desires, a sense of beauty for the future.”

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“This is why we invited the Holy Father.”