Mothering Russia

If Russia today strikes many as a throwback to the Soviet Union, President Putin's recent state of the union speech reinforced that impression. Motherhood was a key theme. Outlining steps to raise one of the world's lowest birthrates, he could have easily invoked the "hero mothers" of yesteryear who were honored for large families.

And yet Vladimir Putin was absolutely correct in identifying Russia's demographic future as a challenge. Population has fallen precipitously since the early 1990s, triggered, some say, by the instability of the volatile, post- Soviet Yeltsin era. It's been declining by about 700,000 people per year.

With fewer young people available for the workforce or military, the trend has serious economic and security implications - not to mention social ones.

And so, as in a few developed nations also grappling with a birth dearth, the president proposed substantial increases in state bonuses for having a baby and subsidies for raising children. For instance, he wants to double to $55 the monthly stipend for first babies. This in a country where the average monthly wage is about $330.

Like babies themselves, birthrate challenges vary around the world. And they're difficult to solve. Being a wealthy, developed nation, for instance, hasn't made much of a difference in raising Japan's fertility rate, which, according to the UN Population Division, from 2000-05, was the same as Russia's - 1.33 children per woman. Nor have national riches done much to up Germany's rate (1.32), or Italy's (1.28).

Cultural factors play a big role. Germany, whose fertility rate has barely budged since 1990, pays child subsidies, yet German culture is not known for being particularly child-friendly. In Japan, many women want to avoid traditional roles in a society where mothers are slaves to home duties and educating children.

But state and cultural support for parents (including working moms) has helped in a country such as France, which has a fertility rate of 1.87, close to that of the US (2.04).

Russia's low standard of living should make financial incentives more meaningful than in richer countries. Still, Putin missed the mark by glossing over what makes the population drop in his country so unique: a high mortality rate and short life expectancy that have squeezed the population count from the other end.

He would have done well to dwell on factors such as health and environment that contribute to an average Russian life expectancy of only 66 years (58.9 years for men, and falling).

Alcoholism remains a huge problem, yet behavior-changing ad campaigns, such as the US antismoking drive, are in their infancy in Russia. And preventive healthcare gets short shrift.

Mr. Putin needs to address this half of the population equation, and at a time when Western nations are worried about Kremlin backsliding on democracy, this is one area where Russia and Western nations can work together.

But more fundamentally, Putin must recognize that people hopeful about the future will want to pass that hope on to children. Handouts alone won't accomplish this.

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