Since the 1980s, countries in East Asia have been in the grip of a “baby race” to reverse the declining birthrate. Taiwan entered this “race” in the early 1990s, but even today its approach has been unique. Unlike Japan, Singapore and South Korea, Taiwan has been cautious and half-hearted. Should Taiwan commit more revenue, resources and national spirit to this race to increase fertility?
Taiwan’s current total fertility rate (TFR) of 1.08 last year was an historical low. The TFR is an annual calculation of the number of children a woman is likely to have during her childbearing years. The replacement fertility level is 2.1 children — the number of children required to replace the existing population and prevent population decline.
It should be remembered, however, that many countries both large and small have a TFR between 1.1 and 1.5, including South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Germany and Italy — even the People’s Republic of China currently stands at 1.5, according to the US Census Bureau.
Policies to reverse Taiwan’s low fertility rate compete with other equally important views in society — for example that Taiwan is overpopulated. Many policymakers are also not convinced that low fertility warrants significant expenditure. This is partly because the link between rising fertility and economic growth is not well established. Also, for older generations, Taiwan’s demographic revolution is still fresh in their minds. The successful reduction of high fertility to low fertility through family planning is one of the great success stories in the post-war world.
The reduction of fertility from very high levels to replacement level in order to avoid economic and social chaos was the most pressing issue for Taiwan in the 1950s and 1960s. Taiwan suffered from severe overpopulation, with a TFR of 7.04 in 1951. Family planning was essential to reduce fertility.
The Taichung Study in the early 1960s found that women actually wanted to have fewer children. The need for contraception and resources for reproductive health were central to the work of the Institute of Family Planning, which oversaw “Taiwan’s demographic miracle.” It was an incredible and unique accomplishment. This work should not be forgotten.
Taiwan’s efforts to raise fertility began in 1992 with the promotion of earlier marriage and encouraging the birth of two children. Despite these efforts, by 2005 the TFR was 1.12. A 2008 white paper was another step toward a Taiwanese model for demographic renewal.
The most recent idea has been this year’s search for a slogan to increase fertility with a prize of NT$1 million (US$33,000). Slogans haven’t worked elsewhere in East Asia and are unlikely to have much of an impact on Taiwanese families, except to cause embarrassment and unnecessary social pressure. Policies to increase fertility are fraught with difficulties and have a poor record — virtually all have failed.
Demographic renewal is a difficult path for all countries, therefore caution is warranted. The essential question is: What kind of society do Taiwanese want for their children? The first choice is to pressure young women through slogans, incentives or social embarrassment to marry younger and have more children. The second choice is to invest time and money in all stages of life and develop social and economic policies that will strengthen the entire nation. This second choice requires difficult choices, but in the end will deliver a stronger and more dynamic Taiwan.