Taiwan has spent more than $3 billion trying to get its citizens to have more children.
In 2009, after decades of falling birth rates, it began offering six months of paid parental leave, reimbursed at 60 percent of a new parent’s salary — then recently increased that share to 80 percent. The government has introduced a cash benefit and a tax break for parents of young children, and has invested in child care centers.
Perhaps having exhausted more conventional approaches, current and would-be lawmakers have started getting creative: Authorities have hosted several singles mixers in an effort to get young people to pair up. Terry Gou, a candidate in next year’s Taiwanese presidential election, has even proposed giving people a free pet if they have a child. “If there is no birthrate in the future, who will take care of our furry friends?” he said. “So I have put these two issues together.”
If history is any guide, none of this will work: No matter what governments do to convince them to procreate, people around the world are having fewer and fewer kids.
In the US, the birth rate has been falling since the Great Recession, dropping almost 23 percent between 2007 and 2022. Today, the average American woman has about 1.6 children, down from three in 1950, and significantly below the “replacement rate” of 2.1 children needed to sustain a stable population. In Italy, 12 people now die for every seven babies born. In South Korea, the birth rate is down to 0.81 children per woman. In China, after decades of a strictly enforced one-child policy, the population is shrinking for the first time since the 1960s. In Taiwan, the birth rate stands at 0.87.
The drop has frightened lawmakers and commentators alike, with headlines warning of a coming “demographic crisis” or “Great People Shortage” as economies find themselves without enough young workers to fill jobs and pay taxes. To stem the tide, the world’s leaders have tried everything from generous social welfare programs to pink-and-blue awareness campaigns to five-figure checks to veiled threats, all to relatively little avail. “Even the richest, savviest, most committed governments have struggled to find policies that produce sustained bumps in fertility,” Trent MacNamara, a history professor at Texas A&M who has written about fertility rates, told Vox in an email. “If such policies were discoverable, I think someone would have discovered them.”
The failure of dozens of often very expensive pronatalist policies to produce much of a return has policymakers and observers alike wondering whether there’s any way for governments to convince their citizens to have more babies. If not, what should lawmakers should be doing instead to help societies adapt to a demographically changing world?
How politicians have tried to convince people to have babies
In many ways, the falling birth rate is a success story — the result of young people, especially women, having more options and freedoms than ever before. For example, women are better able to control their fertility than in decades past. The Dobbs decision and subsequent state bans on abortion may change that calculus in the US, but prior to the fall of Roe, teen births and unintended births were on the decline, and the use of highly effective contraception methods was on the rise.
Recently, however, declining fertility has stoked anxieties around the world, as leaders face down the prospect of slowing growth and aging populations. Fewer births do have real consequences for how families and societies operate. In 2010, for example, there were more than seven family members available to care for each person over the age of 80; by 2030, there will be only four. An aging society also means fewer workers in key industries and fewer people paying into programs like social security.
These prospects tend to elicit panic among conservatives, who take a moralistic — and sometimes xenophobic — tone in addressing the issue. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) has warned of the dangers of the “childless left” and its “rejection of the American family.” In China, male Community Party officials at a recent meeting on women’s issues bypassed any talk of gender equality and instead urged women to “establish a correct outlook on marriage and love, childbirth, and family.” In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has exhorted citizens to reproduce rather than allowing the country’s population to grow through immigration, saying, “Migration for us is surrender.”
But concerns about birth rates go beyond the rhetoric of right-wing politicians. Governments like Taiwan’s have spent billions of dollars and tried all manner of incentives to cajole or even bribe people into having more babies. Many European countries that experienced plummeting fertility in the 1980s and ’90s have adopted pro-family policies, often including paid parental leave, publicly supported child care, or a combination thereof, said Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland who studies demographic trends and family structure. Austria, for example, lengthened maternity leave to 2.5 years. Germany increased investment in child care and early education, and then, in 2013, affirmed that every child over the age of 1 had the right to a spot in a public daycare.
Other countries have tried direct payments to parents: Russia began offering a one-time sum of about $7,000 to families with more than two kids, while Italy and Greece have experimented with per-child “baby bonuses.” In 2019, Hungary introduced a loan of around $30,000 to newlyweds. If they have three children, the loan is forgiven.
Public-education campaigns have also emerged, essentially begging people to reproduce. In Copenhagen, for example, a 2015 poster asked, “Have you counted your eggs today?” In 2012, the Singaporean government partnered with Mentos to release a rap video encouraging couples to “make Singapore’s birth rate spike.” (“Only financially secure adults in stable, committed, long-term relationships should participate,” the campaign clarified.)
So far, most countries have tried either asking people nicely to reproduce or sweetening the deal with money. If that doesn’t work, however, restricting people’s reproductive choices may be on the table, especially in more autocratic regimes. In Iran, where the government in the 1990s made birth control cheap or free in an effort to curb population growth, authorities are now cracking down on abortion and contraception as part of a drive to boost births. In the US, abortion bans have not generally been explicitly promoted as population-boosting measures, but some see them that way. New House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) has linked falling birth rates and demographic change with abortion, arguing that Roe v. Wade was responsible for a dearth of American workers. “We’re all struggling here to cover the bases of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and all the rest,” he said in a committee hearing. “If we had all those able-bodied workers in the economy, we wouldn’t be going upside down and toppling over like this.”
In China, some are concerned that exhortations for women to cease working and have children could translate into punishments for women who don’t comply. “If the party could sacrifice women’s body and birth rights for its one-child policy,” Fubing Su, a political science professor at Vassar College, told the New York Times, “they could impose their will on women again.”
Why it’s so hard to convince people to procreate
From loans to speeches about traditional values, government efforts have generally failed to make much impact on people’s childbearing decisions. They may shift the timing of childbirth, but they “don’t ultimately affect the number of kids people have,” said Alison Gemmill, a professor of population, family, and reproductive health at Johns Hopkins University.
One reason may be that decisions around childbearing are influenced by larger social factors that are outside the scope of government policy — including the growing number of choices people have about how to spend their lives. As education and economic productivity have increased over time, the “opportunity cost” of having a child has grown as well, said Cohen, the sociology professor. “People, especially women, have more lucrative things to do.”
Public-service campaigns and government-sponsored singles events, which often have the awkward aura of a high-school health teacher lecturing students about sex, typically meet with skepticism. The three mixers held by the city of Tainan, Taiwan, since 2019 have yet to produce a single wedding, let alone a child, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In the US, meanwhile, rhetoric aimed at getting people to have more children can ring hollow given a racist history in which white motherhood has been lauded while Black women’s fertility has been viewed as disordered and suspect, to the point that Black women have been forcibly sterilized. In a country where Black women die in childbirth at nearly three times the rate of white women, it’s impossible to hear calls to increase the birth rate without questioning who they’re really aimed at. Black women have always understood, “You’re not talking about me when you’re saying these things,” said Regina Davis Moss, president of the nonprofit In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda. Indeed, college-educated Black women in the US have fewer children than their white counterparts, with researchers speculating that concerns about maternal mortality could be a reason why.
Fears for the future may also play a role in declining birth rates around the world. “Young adults are living in a world which is characterized by many crises,” from war to climate change to the erosion of democratic norms in the US and elsewhere, said Jessica Nisén, a family demographer at the University of Turku in Finland.
The lack of family-friendly policies like paid leave and subsidized child care could also contribute to falling fertility in the US. There’s evidence, for example, that some people are having fewer children than they want. In a 2018 US poll, about a quarter of respondents said they had or were planning to have fewer kids than they would ideally like to have. Of those, 64 percent cited the cost of child care as a reason. Ballooning costs — of child care, housing, college, and more — are an issue around the world, with South Korea and China topping the list of most expensive places to raise a child. “When you ask people, why aren’t you having the kids that you want, we do see economic reasons come to the fore,” said Gemmill.
Yet even in countries like Sweden and Norway, known worldwide for their generous parental leave and other supports, fertility has begun to decline. These countries do have higher birth rates than some of their neighbors, and it’s possible that their drops would be starker without policies like child care and paid leave in place, Nisén said. It’s also possible that people in the Nordic countries are delaying having kids instead of skipping it altogether, and that the birth rate will pick up later on.
At a certain point, however, delayed births become foregone as people age out of their reproductive years. Many experts told Vox they believe that there’s no going back to a time when people had lots of kids in their 20s. “I just don’t see that happening,” Gemmill said. “People just want time to grow and develop.”
There are policies that can help people create the families they want
That leaves policymakers with the question of what they can do. For a lot of experts, the answer is nothing. “I’m basically against having birth rates be a policy target,” Cohen said. “Anything you do to influence this is going to have very probable bad side effects, and any benefits you get are likely to be very small and very long term.”
Instead of trying to boost birth rates, experts say lawmakers should focus on policies that allow people to have the families they want, regardless of size. “We need to invest in people and their success,” Gemmill said. In the US, that means measures to improve access to high-quality jobs, paid leave, and affordable child care, as well as supporting families in the transition to parenthood. “We always hear that it takes a village, but that village is just not what it used to be,” Gemmill said. “It just seems like everything’s set up to be very hostile to parents.”
Equitable family policy in the US also includes investment in health care for Black birthing people, including maternal mental health and “access to providers who look like us,” Moss said. Any discussion of fertility and birth rates also needs to address the safety of children, including overpolicing, racist violence, and the spiking rate of gun deaths. “We want to be able to raise our children in safe and healthy environments,” Moss said.
Reforms to family policy may not produce the jump in birth rates that some are hoping for, experts say. Countries may find themselves needing to adapt, both economically and socially, to an aging population.
They might also recognize that shrinking family size isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Lower birth rates around the world could lessen environmental degradation, competition for resources, and even global conflict, Wang Feng, a sociology professor at UC Irvine, writes in the New York Times.
Nor is falling fertility necessarily a permanent condition. The baby boom that began in the 1940s “took everyone by surprise,” MacNamara, the Texas A&M historian, said. “Exactly zero demographers saw it coming. Even today no one is quite sure why it happened and why it lasted so long.” It’s entirely possible, he said, that another boom could hit the US, just as unpredictably as the last.
It’s also possible that lawmakers can indirectly create conditions under which people feel optimistic about having kids. Most high-income countries, including the US, experienced dips in birth rate in early 2021, as people responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by delaying or forgoing pregnancy. But a few countries, including Norway and Finland, actually saw a jump in births.
These countries did not experience particularly high mortality or infection rates, and highly educated workers in particular may have been minimally impacted by the devastation of Covid — while enjoying more free time and flexibility thanks to working from home, Nisén said. There’s another potential factor as well: “Finland is a country where people trust in their government quite strongly,” Nisén said. That trust may have mitigated the uncertainty people felt around the pandemic, and helped them feel secure in growing their families.
Trust is a hard thing to legislate, but it’s unlikely to result from policies that are repressive or that seek to turn back the clock on women’s economic or social progress. Lawmakers might just have to accept that they can’t control how many children people have. “It’s better just to help the population take care of their needs,” Cohen said, “and let them decide.”