By The Nation
Thailand’s population growth rate has been worryingly low for years. Due in part to a three-decade-old state birth-control policy and more recent changes in lifestyle preferences, far more people today choose to remain single and childless.
World Bank statistics indicate annual population growth here has stayed consistently under 1 per cent since 2005 and, between 2011 and 2015 when it was last measured, fell below 0.5 per cent.
Amid increasing global concern about overpopulation decades ago, the Thai government initiated a birth-control programme that had as its slogan “Having many babies makes you poor”. It proved to be quite successful. Meanwhile it’s common these days for people – particularly educated and financially independent women – to opt to stay single, and a significant percentage of married couples choose not to have children.
Population growth in 2015 was 0.4 per cent, says Department of Health director-general Wachira Pengjuntr, a dramatic decline from 2.7 per cent in 1970. Currently about 700,000 babies are born each year, he reports, whereas annual deaths number between 300,000 and 400,000. Wachira warns that if nothing is done to increase the population, the growth rate will fall to zero within the next decade.
The chief reason this is cause for alarm is that a low birth rate contributes to the high percentage of elderly people in the population, which in turn corresponds with a shrinking workforce. The resulting financial burden for the country and its taxpayers – in both the loss of labour and the cost of caring for the elderly and ailing – is clear to see.
For its part, the Public Health Ministry is now pursuing a government directive to shore up the birth rate with a campaign urging citizens to “have babies for the country”. Minister Piyasakol Sakolsatayadorn has told the state agencies involved to encourage healthy women aged ages 20 to 34 to get pregnant “in the national interest”, as it were. The idea might work, but there’s a noticeable dearth of details regarding potential benefits for the parents. More couples might cooperate if there were, for example, attractive tax rebates, longer paid maternity leaves and other financial incentives.
The state might have had success with its long-ago birth-curtailing scheme, but in this latter-day effort to adjust the effects of that policy, parents are being shown a stick without a carrot. Generous incentives are essential if otherwise disinterested women are to be convinced it’s worthwhile having a child. Other countries with diminishing populations, including Japan, Singapore, South Korea and France, have campaigns that offer couples attractive fiscal “baby bonuses”, and the more babies they have – up to a maximum of four children, that is – the greater the monetary incentives.
The Thai government would be well advised to increase existing parenting benefits as well, such as ensuring women workers longer leave with pay. At present they’re entitled by law to a maternity leave of just 90 days – and are paid for only half of those days.
It is important too that the government ensure parents are both financially and emotionally prepared to nurture infants. Too often children are born to single women and unmarried partners who are too young, too naïve or financially unable to manage the stress and responsibility of parenthood. New parents who struggle to make ends meet are unlikely to maintain a home environment conducive to rearing a child. A poor quality of life is not nourishing, and society might later have to pay the price for youth acting on the unfulfilled needs of infancy.
Perhaps what’s most important to keep in mind as we encourage people to have more babies is that parents have to be equipped for the task.