Taiwan People’s Party Chairman and presidential candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) on Tuesday unveiled policy proposals to address Taiwan’s low birthrate, including a “baby bonus” of NT$100,000 for new mothers, expansion of child-rearing subsidies and bringing maternity leave in line with international norms.
It is good to hear Ko talking policy instead of being distracted by negotiations with other presidential candidates regarding a possible “non-green alliance,” and he has identified an issue worthy of serious attention.
However, he fails to recognize that financial incentives to encourage people to have children have proven ineffectual, while international norms have paid few dividends, given that fertility rates and replacement levels continue to fall throughout Asia and the West, with few exceptions.
American Enterprise Institute academic Nicholas Eberstadt has written that “incentives to boost birthrates are likely to be costly, and elicit only modest and perhaps fleeting demographic results.”
What Eberstadt means by “fleeting demographic results” is that even if the policy works, it leads to a “blip” followed by a slump. That is, people are incentivized to have a child earlier instead of a few years later. Such policies change the timing of births, but do little to boost the number of births.
“The single best predictor for national fertility rates happens to be wanted family size as reported by women,” Eberstadt wrote.
Policy-based financial incentives are a micro approach, but the core of the issue is on a society-wide scale, involving what people desire.
The prospect of having and raising a child is a major decision with life-long implications, including at least two decades of dependence. Moreover, parenting does not end when a child leaves the home.
Modern society prioritizes convenience and personal autonomy, and constraints on these ideals are seen as onerous. It emphasizes the perceived sacrifices of raising a child, without the sense of what children bring to a household and the nation.
Taiwanese are getting married later, which reduces the time women have to give birth. Financial insecurity feeds into this, as does uncertainty about the future.
Taiwan is modern on some levels, but at base it is still a traditional Confucian society, so having a child out of wedlock is still frowned upon. Even with financial stability and a healthy marriage, prospective parents still need hope and a reason to bring children into the world.
On a global scale, war, climate change, uncertainties over financial and food security, and the potential destabilizing effects of transformative technologies such as artificial intelligence are concerns. Taiwanese are also constantly reminded of the threat of aggression from China.
It is not true that sub-replacement trends are a result of Western ideals and the preoccupations of modern society.
Eberstadt pointed to one nation that has bucked the trend. Israel is a modern society that several decades ago he had assumed would align with the sub-replacement trends of Western countries. However, data show that the birthrate among Israeli Jews, orthodox and secular, not only remains above replacement, it is going up. This is not the result of government policy, but due to a collective mentality of what is desirable for the nation.
Government policy needs to take a more holistic approach to the fertility crisis, not targeted financial incentives alone, and focus on perceptions of stability and a national cause.
Unfortunately, Taiwanese often talk about “loving Taiwan,” but there is little consensus about what the nation is and where it should be going.
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