Tag Archives: birthrate

Day 5: Why South Koreans Won’t Have Kids- And Why Policy Cannot Solve the Low Fertility Issue (part 2)

16 Feb

In the last post, I said that the overarching policy frameworks are mainly patriarchal, and that is what is preventing the formation of long-term policies. And the specific problems that I can think of (or heard of) are below.

First of all, in my opinion, Korean culture (along with others) has demanded women’s tremendous sacrifices for their families, although its women got to take various social roles outside of their homes over the past several decades. In traditional Korean household, she is the one who takes care of domestic duties while the husband is the “breadwinner” who works outside, bringing income to the house. However, Korea’s economy has modernized in a very short time span, without giving people enough time to change the traditional family/social norms. Hence, even if both the husband and the wife are working, woman “naturally” has to take care of the work outside and inside household. For example, both of my parents work as teachers, and they bring similar amount of incomes to the family. However, my mother’s work doesn’t end at 5pm when she gets out of her workplace, but continues as she has to cook dinner, clean the messy house and fold laundry. When I was much younger, she breastfed me, read to me and helped my homework when I was enrolled in school, along with doing all the house chores. I don’t remember when the last time my dad actually did any of the work (no offense to him), and if he did anything, it was him offering help, not doing his duty. My mother was often at a place where she had to feel guilty as she had to leave me with my grandmother (who raised me since I was born until 9) and had to ponder whether she had to choose either her work or her wife/mother duty. And this was the 80s and the 90s.

Is it any different now in Korea overall? I don’t think so, unfortunately, although the modern fathers are more involved in childrearing than my parents’ generation. Even today, many young mothers have to ponder whether they are going to keep working, take some months off (maternity leave) or just quit her job so that they can devote their time for their babies, thanks to family friendly labor policies and practices. It is commonly believed that the child has stronger bond to the mother than the father, but I think it’s a matter of how we humans make it to be (i.e. it’s not a matter of nature, but nurture). I don’t think women are any more caring than men, especially in terms of parenting. What I mean is that many fathers have not been actively involved in raising children ever since they were born, and seriously, other than the fact that man can’t produce breast milk, there is no difference with the mother in terms of parenting. The child is the product of the two people, and let’s face it, the parental responsibilities have never been fair. Culture dictates people’s behaviors, while “policy making culture” within the country is the space for policy makers to influence the social norms (how things “should” be for the general social wellbeing). Policies which does not seek to influence shifting of cultures and behaviors are short-sighted and doomed to be ineffective. Korea needs a very deep gender role overhaul.

Another reason for not having children seems to be the economics of having children which is not economical at all. It’s just too darn expensive to raise even one child in a family. Even if both wife and husband work, it is impossible to have big savings from the beginning, as the housing cost is getting quite expensive in the urban area. Many couples start their lives with some debt, and then when they finally decide to have a child or two, the expenses are tremendous, starting with all the basics like diapers, formulas, and clothes (that they will grow out of so quickly). I remember watching news on how expensive these items are, way more than other countries with the similar purchasing power. When the child grows, they have to go to nurseries, kindergartens, schools and extracurricular activities, but they all cost tremendous amount of money that the parents may not have. The government came up with “free pre-school education policy” for the bottom 75% of the economic strata, but to be exact, the education is not free as the government provides about 150USD a month per family with a preschooler, while the monthly fee of a private kindergarten is often easily 300-500USD (or even more). So the name of the policy itself is pretty populist in itself as you see. I can’t imagine having 2 kindergarteners in my family and supporting them with my pay. I mean over 1000 dollars a month just for schooling? Even if both of the parents work, it is a huge chunk of spending. Now, the elections (both for the national assembly and presidential) are coming, the politicians decided that they will expand this to all households with pre-school age children as of this year. And what would happen to the budget of this country? I have no idea, and it’s only scary to think of the terrible cycle of near-sighted populist welfare policies and budget limits. I mean I’m all for welfare, and South Korea’s welfare system has a long way to go, but I hate these populist politicians and their policies playing with the tax money without much planning, while all they need is just a few more votes.

I’m sure there are many other reasons for low fertility rate. Some couples agree to not to have children, and it’s their life style choice that I have nothing against. Others choose not to marry, which reduces the chance of having children tremendously (In Korea, alternative family forms, such as single parents raising children without partners and gay couples adopting children, are not very common and perceived with much cultural stigma).

But in sum, Korea has many different elements that prevent young women and men from having more children (or having kids at all). Human, cultural elements are missing in family policies very often, causing other issues which require more new policies. Some Korean policy makers now seem to realize gradually that it’s not just “women’s problem” but there are a lot of obstacles to overcome in terms of social and gender norms, and policies should have long term goals which can drive the change of traditional mentality. After all, it is most important to create an environment where people can willingly have children, not because of the national economic issues, but because they want to have the joy of having more family members.

Day 4: Why South Koreans Won’t Have Kids- And Why Policy Cannot Solve the Low Fertility Issue (part 1)

15 Feb

I have a bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology and master’s in Public Policy. While I have these swanky titles after 20 years of formal education, I honestly cannot tell you what these disciplines are about and what I actually learned. But I can tell you for sure that I learned how to think about various social issues from the perspectives of the both disciplines. And today, although my cold meds are bothering me extremely, I really want to get this off of my chest. It’s about birthrate in South Korea.

Many demographists and others have pointed out that South Korea has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, fighting for the top (?!?) along with Japan and Singapore, two other developed economies in Asia. Just to get some perspective, I have found the CIA data on global birthrates, which ranked the countries with the highest birthrate on top and the lowest at the bottom.

Not so surprisingly, out of 221 countries, South Korea ranked 215 (in other words, 7th in low birthrate) while Japan ranked 220, Hong Kong 219 and Singapore 216. Yes, the data might be a bit skewed because Monaco, Hong Kong (which is not a country, but oh well) and Singapore’s population sizes (and samples) are perhaps not so compatible with those of South Korea and Japan. Regardless, low birthrate is one of the greatest threats in more developed countries as the aging population is rapidly increasing, posing financial threats to the country’s welfare budget, further economic development and many other elements. So maybe to many people’s minds, it is a policy problem, and I totally agree. But I would argue that it is also a greater social and cultural issue that should be attacked from a much wider angle, while globally, we are still facing the issue of population explosion rather than lack of people.

Korea’s Two-Child Policy

Perhaps you are familiar with One-Child Policy in China which is strictly enforced by the government. But Two-Child Policy of South Korea was rather a series of campaigns from South Korean government in the 1970s and the 80s to encourage couples to have only 2 children. I don’t believe that there was any penalty for having too many or incentives for having fewer than 2, but it was a campaign under dictatorship, so many people were often more or less collaborative to government’s policies and campaigns.

Of course there were legitimate reasons. South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world after the Korean War (even worse than North Korea and Ethiopia at the time), and as the government pushed for economic development, controlling the number of population became a key factor in promoting this national goal. Since Korea traditionally had been an agricultural society, a family easily had over 6 kids. There were simply too many mouths to feed in the country and families while there were too few economic opportunities (i.e. jobs). But with the rigorous campaign during the 60s and the 70s along with truly miraculous economic development, the average number of kids per family dropped to 4 kids, then to 2 kids during the 80s. As part of the campaign, the posters below were distributed by the Ministry of Welfare and Korea Family Planning Association. The top one says, “Let’s have only two kids whether sons or daughters,” while the bottom one says, “Even two are too many.” Obviously they did not foresee the problems that the future would face while there are too few kids around to support the national economy.

Source and more information: http://www.prb.org/Articles/2010/koreafertility.aspx

I don’t feel that the campaigns were incorrect, and they were necessary moves at the time to lift the country out of poverty (and for the population of developing countries, I believe that encouraging fewer kids while promoting proper nutrition and education is a key development strategy). Korea then and Korea today have completely different economic situations and needs, and I believe that developing countries should actively participate in lowering birthrates.

However, South Korea’s policy did not consider the potential sex-ratio imbalance, as people still had strong preference for sons over daughters. Girl children were often aborted illegally (abortion has been illegal in Korea), and it caused sex-ratio at birth of 108, meaning 108 boys for every 100 girls (in 2005), according to a UNFPA report. Although the son preference has been reduced (and nowadays, there’s actually a general sentiment towards daughter preference) and the ratio is more or less normalized (around 105:100, which is considered almost “normal”), there is a whole policy challenge regarding marriage migration (i.e. “importing” wives from other countries —a new form of mail-order brides– mainly from China, Viet Nam, and the Philippines, but not limited to) and increasing number of multicultural families. The trend is a challenge for welfare and education policies among others, while Korea has been a relatively homogeneous country for many years. This policy showed the necessity of considering human behaviors and cultures into the policy, while cultural and social norms greatly influence people’s behavior reacting to policies.

Why are family policies not working today?

So back to the question of why South Koreans do not have enough children…

Firstly, I believe that the policy makers’ perspectives are starting out on a wrong foot. To me, many policy makers on families, children and women (which all fall under the vague category of welfare policy) have been asking the wrong questions. They have been asking, “Why are women not having kids?” But you all know very well that it takes two to have a child. Such a question inherently blames only women for not being married and pursuing other goals in lives, stigmatizing women for “going against the nature.” Well, it might not be so surprising that such policy question is asked, because the entire policy framework regarding this issue is constructed under patriarchal assumptions just like many other policies. I am aware that women are also parts of the policy formation, but one’s sex has nothing to do with the role that one chooses to play, even in policy world. As long as birthrate is considered primarily “women’s issue,” or women’s issues are considered the same thing as family issues, further policy discussions would not make much progress.

In addition, there’s a problem in considering population simply as numerical values, not humans. As seen in Korea’s two-child policy, the government did not necessarily consider the cultural preference of having son, and that those sons may not end up with partners because there are simply too many men compared to the number of women (potential marriage partners). It seems that the sustainability of family units was never a big question to the policy makers. The campaign did not penetrate well enough to change a certain culture and behaviors that are discriminatory and sexist against female children. Part of the reasons is that policies are quite politicized and the policy makers have to implement those policies that would bring the most bangs for the buck they spend within the fiscal year or until the next elections. When the discussion of having children and raising them is only focusing on the economic impact and numbers, such as potential “units” who will participate in economic activities and the number of tax payers, we dehumanize the meaning of family and bring further challenges throughout the implementation of policies. Women’s bodies are only valuable because of their reproductive organs and their “natural roles” as the caretakers. Children are only future workers and tax payers. Men are a small part of reproduction and breadwinners. The gender role assumptions are quite stark in policymaking while humans become simple units of a country, no?

Part 2 will continue tomorrow (when I can think and breathe better). I will write about what the actual problems are in birthing and raising children in South Korea.