Make Boomsa for the Motherland!

The creative, absurd, and ineffective ways that countries try to boost their birthrates.

Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left) and President Vladimir Putin (center) attend the opening ceremony of the Year of the Family in Moscow's Kremlin, Dec. 24, 2007.
Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left) and President Vladimir Putin (center) attend the opening ceremony of the Year of the Family in Moscow’s Kremlin, Dec. 24, 2007.

Photo by Ria Novosti/Reuters

In February, the R&B group Boyz II Men performed a show in Moscow. Several Western media outlets claimed that the concert was done at the behest of Vladimir Putin, as part of his campaign to get Russians to make boomsa for the motherland—the idea being that the sweet, smooth grooves of “I’ll Make Love to You” would be a nice warm-up act for Valentine’s Day.

This was something of a hoax: It’s not clear that Putin actually had anything to do with the booking. Or that the Moscow concert was anything other than a routine tour stop for the group. But the Boyz II Men story caught on because it fit in with some of the outlandish measures Russia has taken in recent years to boost its low fertility rate.

Putin began his natalist campaign in 2008, declaring it the “Year of the Family.” There were billboards and placards encouraging people to have children. A park in Moscow debuted special benches designed to gently slide couples closer together, all the better for canoodling. July 8 was designated “Family, Love, and Fidelity Day,” a new holiday created to encourage family formation. This was the third holiday Russia had created for such a purpose: In 2007, Sept. 12 was named “Family Contact Day,” a day on which workers were given time off and encouraged to, like, totally do it. Women having babies nine months later, on “Give Birth to a Patriot on Russia Day,” won fabulous prizes ranging from TVs to an SUV.

Russia has also instituted some more traditional natalist policies; for instance the government began a program that pays mothers $10,000 for the birth of a second child. Putin’s stated goal is that “the three-child family should become the norm in Russia.”

He is not the first Russian leader to worry about the country’s fertility rate. In 1944, as Russians were being ground up in the war against Germany, Josef Stalin created the “Motherhood Medal” for women who bore six children. (That was for the First Class order; only five children were required for Second Class. You can pick a medal up pretty cheap on eBay.) In 1955, Nikita Khrushchev surveyed the nascent Western overpopulation mania and declared it a “cannibalistic theory” invented by “bourgeois ideology.” He continued: “Their concern is to cut down the birth rate, reduce the rate of population increase. It is quite different with us, comrades. If about 100 million people were added to our 200 million, even that would not be enough.”

The old Soviet regime rolled out a series of childbearing incentives: First, lump-sum payments for the birth of children. Then increased state benefits for families with children, including bonuses for housing and work allowances. In 1981 the Politburo offered women a full year of partially paid leave for having a baby. In 1986 it upped the ante to a year-and-a-half ’s worth of leave.

None of it worked, then or now. The Soviet Union’s fertility rate—that’s the average number of children a woman bears during her lifetime—declined throughout the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. The only brief period of increase came during the late 1980s. And then it resumed decline.

Putin’s initiatives haven’t fared any better. The Russian government declared demographic victory in 2012 because there was an increase in the crude number of births. “The demographic programs enacted in the past decade are, thank God, working,” Putin said. But most demographers believe this is a statistical ghost—the slight spike in fertility rates during the late ’80s created a relatively fat cohort of women now in their prime childbearing years. So while the number of births has increased thanks to the size of this cohort, Russia’s total fertility rate has remained very low. The CIA World FactBook puts it at 1.61. The replacement fertility rate—the number of births the average woman must have in order to hold population constant—is 2.1. Which is why Russia’s population has been declining for several years now. And will continue to decline in another year or two, once the statistical ghost has been given up.

Russia’s situation isn’t unique. Fertility rates began falling in Western, industrialized countries in 1968. By 1975, every Western First World nation was below the replacement rate. Over the course of the next two decades, massive fertility decline spread worldwide: In 1979, the global fertility rate was 6.0; today it’s 2.52 and still declining. While the lay press has spent the last 30 years fretting about increasing world population, the academic community has been largely concerned with the opposite. Because when you look at just the top-line number you miss the more important, rate-based trends. So today, most population models suggest we are currently at “peak child,” as economist Hans Rosling puts it. That is to say, the world currently has about 2 billion children and that number is likely to decline over time, not increase. Which means that all of our remaining population gains—in terms of the absolute number—will come from increased life expectancy.

Which in turn means that the world is actually headed toward population decline. I’ve written a whole book about this—What to Expect When No One’s Expecting—but don’t take my word for it. Slate contributor Jeff Wise wrote an excellent piece distilling the academic research just a few months ago.

Let’s put aside the academic “should we worry” question for a moment—though clearly lots of societies and governments, from the Russians and the French to the European Union are worried. Instead, let’s look at a more practical matter: Could we bolster fertility rates even if we wanted to? The data suggest that raising fertility is a very heavy lift.

It’s not that countries haven’t tried. Most economists, demographers, and policymakers consider subreplacement fertility as problematic for their societies, which is why countries ranging from France, Sweden, and Japan to Estonia, Canada, and Singapore have spent decades trying to goose their fertility rates. In fact, pro-natalist policy dates back to Caesar Augustus, who tried to combat fertility declines in the late Roman Empire by passing a tax on unmarried men. Since then, the policy establishment has come up with all sorts of ideas.

To be crudely reductive, pro-natalist policies come in three flavors: liberal, meaning those that actively aim to make motherhood more doable; conservative, meaning those that attempt “market” manipulation through financial and social incentives; and wacky.

Believe it or not, Vladimir Putin’s love benches are just the start of the wacky stuff. In South Korea (total fertility rate: 1.24) the country’s Ministry of Health decided to encourage people to take time off from work in order to focus on, ahem, “family formation.” So the office generously designated one Wednesday a month as “Family Day.” On “Family Day,” the office turns out the lights in an effort to get people to quit work early. Mind you, they don’t actually turn them off until 7:30 p.m.

In Japan (TFR: 1.39) they’ve tried to encourage people to have kids by building robots. Of course. The robot baby is named “Yotaro,” and the idea is that he’s so cute and sweet that young couples exposed to his charmingly uncanny valley will want a meatspace version of their very own.

In Singapore (TFR: 0.79) the government sponsored a “National Night” party in which young Singaporean couples were euphemistically encouraged to “let their patriotism explode” in order to give their country “the population spurt it so desperately needs.” (The party was sponsored by Mentos: the Freshmaker!)

“Liberal” pro-natalist policies have been much more judicious. France and the Scandinavian countries first began attempting to bolster their fertility rates in the 1930s. In 1938, for instance, France created a “Family Code,” which provided an annual stipend to parents for each child born. (It was colloquially known as “The Housewife’s Allowance.”) In 1978, France replaced the Family Code with a “New Family Policy,” which abolished the Housewife’s Allowance and created in its place a national network of free, state-run day care centers. This model has been emulated by the other Nordic countries and is often viewed by American liberals as the beau ideal of natalist policy.

State-run day care might be a good idea on its own merits, but, in terms of boosting the birthrate, the results are, at best, mixed. Despite their excellent day care, for instance, the Swedes have a TFR of 1.67; the Norwegians 1.77. France has the highest TFR in Europe—a gaudy 2.08. But France’s success has more to do with immigration than natalist day care policy: Native French fertility is estimated to be about 1.7, while several reports suggest the fertility rate of immigrants is between 2.8 and 5.0. If France kept its day care centers but closed its borders, its fertility rate would likely plummet.

“Conservative” natalist policies haven’t fared much better. The Mentos bacchanal aside, Singapore has pursued a regime of incredibly family-friendly initiatives. First the government offered big tax breaks to mothers with three or more children. Then it started awarding cash baby bonuses—$9,000 for a second child and $18,000 for a third. The government created child savings accounts that matched parental savings dollar-for-dollar in 401(k)-like funds that could be used to pay for child care expenses. The government mandated that employers offer a minimum of 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. It instituted a program to help grandparents find housing near the grandkids, in order to help with child care.

All of this was accompanied by public campaigns condemning abortion and urging people to procreate. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong spoke out against single motherhood and illegitimacy and stressed the importance of traditional families in terms that make Rick Santorum look like a dirty hippie. And throughout all of this, Singapore’s fertility rate continued to fall to where it is now—0.79—one of the lowest marks in recorded history.

A great deal of study has been made of natalist measures and the analysis suggests that, at best, policy can have a small, positive effect on fertility rates. For every success story (Canada and Estonia experienced some modest fertility growth by offering baby bonuses and a “mother’s salary”), there are many failures. One econometric analysis of the literature suggests that for every 25 percent increase in natalist spending, society gets a 0.6 percent fertility increase in the short term, and only a 4 percent increase in the long run.

As the demographer Jan Hoem concludes, fertility is “best seen as a systemic outcome that depends more on broader attributes, such as the degree of family-friendliness of a society, and less on the presence and detailed construction of monetary benefits.”

In America, we’re not where Russia and Singapore are, but we’re headed in that direction. And sooner or later we’re going to have to start thinking about demographics here, too.

Now it should go without saying that people who don’t want kids shouldn’t be cajoled or hectored into having them—and plenty of people these days just don’t want children. But that’s not the median experience.

One of the great ironies of the sexual revolution is that three generations ago men and women generally wound up having more children than they said they wanted, but today they have fewer. In America, for instance, the ideal fertility rate—that’s the number of children people say they’d like to have in a perfect world—is 2.5, and has been constant for 40 years, even as our actual fertility rate has fallen to 1.9.

So perhaps the American policy establishment will come up with some ideas to help bridge that divide so that men and women can achieve their fertility goals. Snuggle-benches, Boyz II Men, and robot babies aren’t going to cut it.