East bloc to women: have babies. Officials seek to arrest population drop
East European planners love to push for increased output, be it of steel or almost any other product. Now they have gone one step further. They want to boost the number of babies.Skip to next paragraph
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As their populations slowly shrink, governments throughout the region have introduced a series of natality measures -- from financial bonuses to bans on contraception. For Hungarians fearful of losing their Magyar identity, Romanians anxious about their Latin culture, and Bulgaria's Slavs nervous about the fast-growing Turkish minority, the issue is a matter of national survival as well as economic necessity.
``We need a healthier structure of the population,'' says Andras Klinger, director of Hungary's Statistics Board. ``To plan an economy, you must be able to plan the number of workers.''
Eastern Europe's overall birth rate has fallen steadily for the past two decades. From a postwar high of around three babies each, mothers in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Bulgaria now average fewer than two babies. Only in Romania and Poland is the birth rate above the 2.1 replacement level -- the number of children needed to replace every parent, with more added to account for mortality.
Western Europe and the United States have experienced a similar decline. In the most dramatic cases, birth rates in West Germany and Denmark have tumbled to 1.4 per woman. West Germany has the world's oldest population, with only a small percentage of young people and a large share of the middle-aged and pensioners.
On both sides of the political divide, demographers say the reasons for the decline are much the same: urbanization, modernization, and women's liberation. Rural dwellers tied to a traditional way of life have high fertility rates; urbanites living in cramped apartments don't.
In Poland, the continued influence of the Roman Catholic Church and traditional family ties are the exception, giving the country the highest birthrate of any industrialized country in the world. But elsewhere, as contraception spreads, the educational level of society increases, and more women enter the labor market, childbearing has decreased.
``People find they want cars and refrigerators before babies,'' Dr. Klinger explains. ``Children become secondary and very expensive propositions.''
As expensive as children are to raise, the decline of the birthrate hurts the economy. Some East-bloc countries already face labor shortages. Czechoslovakia has been forced to import ``guest workers'' from as far away as Vietnam. Hungary counts more than 2 million pensioners out of a total population of some 11 million.
``There are too few workers to support these pensioners,'' says Ed Hewitt, an East Europe specialist at Washington's Brookings Institute. ``It's a major structural problem.''
Despite facing a similar challenge, almost all Western governments shy away from population policies. They consider the decision of whether or not to have children a private matter. Few politicians discuss the issue in public.