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Analysis & Opinion
30.08.10 Childfree At A Price
By Svetlana Kononova

A recent poll conducted by the independent Levada Center found that 73 percent of Russians do not plan to have children in the next two to three years, and 11 percent said that they do not want children at all. At the same time, 20 percent of respondents support the idea of imposing a tax on childlessness. But experts are skeptical of the idea –extra taxes or other financial restrictions won’t change people’s reproductive behavior, they say.

In 1941 Joseph Stalin imposed a tax on childlessness in the Soviet Union. Men aged 25 to 50 and women aged 20 to 45 had to pay six percent of their monthly salaries to the government. Certain social groups, such as parents whose children died during World War II, war heroes, low-income and infertile people were exempt from this tax. In 1992 the tax on childlessness was abolished due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2006 the State Duma proposed to reinstate it. Ever since then, debate around this tax in the context of Russia’s demographic crisis has continued.

“Most respondents who support the idea of a tax on childless people are older than 55. They have a low level of education and live in small towns and villages. These people still have a Soviet mentality and are nostalgic for the Soviet epoch,” said Polina Cherepova, a sociologist at the Levada Center. “But surprisingly, some proponents of a tax on childlessness are well-educated and have high incomes. It is difficult to say why they support this idea. Possibly, this group believes that citizens should be socially responsible for the demographic problems of their country.”

“Families with children probably support the idea of a childfree tax. They make sacrifices; dedicate time and effort to children. But childfree people don’t want to burden themselves with parenting duties. Therefore they should be punished, from a traditional family’s point of view,” said Oksana Zashirinskaya, a consultant psychologist and the CEO of the St. Petersburg Psychological Association.

Psychologists ascribe many Russians’ unwillingness to bear children soon or at all to changing social attitudes and values. “This poll shows that many modern youths have a welfare mentality. They are ready to live off their parents or future spouses. Having children restricts many possibilities, including financial. Many young people prefer to live for themselves, which some ascribe to social instability. Yet we’ve almost always had social instability in Russia. Most likely, the main reason is an egocentric attitude, the choice of personal comfort and well-being. Nobody wants to sacrifice themselves or their career,” Zashirinskaya said. “Prospective parents have heard a lot about how hard it is to raise kids. As a result, they consider giving birth and raising children as a big problem that can only be solved over many years. Do they really need these problems? Many childfree characters in movies and soap operas live cheerily and carelessly. They have many opportunities for personal development. The achievement of material welfare, fast career growth and self-realization have become the main values in society.”

In fact, the lives of childless people in Russia are not always that glamorous. Many of them complain of discrimination: in some cases, employers avoid hiring childless women due to a likely pregnancy in the future, and relatives often put pressure on them by trying to persuade them that parenting is a must.

But experts in the field of demography believe that the reasons behind Russians’ unwillingness to have many children are rooted much deeper. “It is no secret that the demographic behavior of a population depends on many factors, such as personal motivation, education level and living conditions. Moreover, not all women are prepared to have a child outside marriage. Women often say in polls that they do not plan any pregnancies because of the ‘housing problem,’ a low income, the absence of a good partner, bad health and a lack of support on behalf of family members,” said Doctor Lyubov Erofeeva, the CEO at the Russian Association for Population and Development (RAPD). “The super influential factors are satisfaction (or lack thereof) with the public health service and the education system, the social safety net for families with children and the government’s housing and family policies.”

Over the past five years experts have ascribed Russia’s demographic crisis to low birth rates. Many women give birth to their first child, but avoid having a second and third. So could the state policy of birthrate propaganda really solve Russia’s demographic problem? “The recent administrative solutions were simple: to encourage women to have more than one child. For example, it is much more difficult to solve the housing problem than to give mothers some ‘parenting funds.’ And paying children some financial benefits is much cheaper than building a modern infrastructure of preschool institutions. In fact, the demographic problem should be solved the other way - by creating a ‘family-friendly society,’ a society that is comfortable and convenient for children and parents,” Erofeeva said.

Although overall fertility rates have risen in Russia since 1999, experts say it is too early to gauge the results of the government’s demographic policy. “Firstly, the growth in birth rates began long before the government initiatives in this field. Secondly, well-educated women still give birth only a few times during their reproductive period, so now we know what types of women are motivated by parenting funds,” Erofeeva added.

Experts perceive a tax on childlessness as a very populist measure. It is hard to believe that it may have an effect on such an important decision as having a child. In any case, the expenses of raising a child are much higher than the tax. But Erofeeva believes that if this tax is reinstated, it might lead to a growth in registered marriages: “This is good. Unregistered marriages are a problem in our society, because children are not protected in such relationships,” she said. “It is a very common question: which countries in the modern world have solved their demographic problems with a state policy that encourages births? In most cases, the effect of expensive measures is very small. There are countries much wealthier than Russia that have a developed social safety net and have encouraged childbearing for decades. But in most European countries, the growth of the population is due to two factors – a growth in life expectancy and in migration.”
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