Wed, Sep 08, 2010 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL : The silver bullet, or just a blank?

The government’s latest brainchild to encourage Taiwanese to have a third child is a subsidy of NT$3,000 (US$94) per month to help cover the cost of hiring a nanny for the first two years of the child’s life. In a society with the lowest birthrate in the world — just one baby born per woman — whoever wrote this law most likely doesn’t have children, doesn’t have any friends with children and, frankly, doesn’t have the foggiest idea how much it costs to raise a child.

Taiwan’s declining birthrate is serious, but it seems the government is not yet taking it seriously. According to a Reuters report on April 2, if Taiwan does not turn around its plummeting birthrate in 10 to 15 years, the aging population may lack the brainpower and manpower to keep up with its industrialized Asian neighbors. That’s a big problem for a country that depends on exports — US$247 billion in 2007.

However, instead of comprehensive polices that would truly encourage people to have children, the government puts a Band-Aid on the gaping wound and says its actions show its sincerity in encouraging more births. Between 2008 and last year, the percentage of the population that had a third child dropped from 8.32 percent to 1.52 percent. This is partly because of the cost of raising a child — an estimated millions from birth to university. Having one child is hard enough for any couple, given Taiwan’s skyrocketing real estate costs, stagnant wages and high cost of education. A second child can be crippling, while a third child would be unthinkable for most.

The NT$3,000 a month subsidy — which will cost the government an estimated NT$118 million per year — also comes with strings attached. It is only applicable for registered nannies. If, for instance, a young couple asks a relative to help take care of their child, they would be ineligible for the subsidy. Furthermore, NT$3,000 a month wouldn’t cover the cost of hiring a registered nanny, so it would be more expensive to hire a nanny and apply for the subsidy than if they got one of their relatives to help with the daycare. The cost of diapers alone is more than NT$3,000 a month.

Lawmakers have blasted the policy as “unrealistic,” with Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators Kuan Bi-ling (管碧玲), Huang Sue-ying (黃淑英) and Tien Chiu-chin (田秋堇) saying the government should concentrate on encouraging parents to have their first and second child before pushing for a third.

DPP Legislator Lin Shu-fen (林淑芬), who just gave birth to her second child, said raising her first and second child had already been nearly enough to put her in the grave, adding that there’s not a chance she would consider having a third child because of a mere NT$3,000 monthly subsidy. Lin said the government’s policy simply shows that it doesn’t yet understand the danger of the declining birthrate, while both Lin and Huang have said that the government needs to concentrate more resources on developing a comprehensive welfare plan to take public responsibility for the costs of birth, child rearing and education.

Despite fiscal difficulties, more resources need to be allocated to children, or Taiwan will turn into a baby desert. Instead of a minuscule sum of money for a couple’s third child, the kindergarten or daycare costs of all children should be covered. Instead of trying to get couples to have children through slogans or cash incentives, the Ministry of Education should shore up the education system to make it affordable and attractive for all. Now is the perfect time, with the number of junior high school students dropping by almost 30,000 last year and elementary school classes dropping in size from a record 35 per class to 25. The ministry can use the money it saves from outlays on students to improve the quality of education for each new student, while making it affordable for parents, thus encouraging them to have more kids.

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