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Birthday bonus

Money | Germany tries to stop population decline by giving a big payoff to new parents

Issue: "Hope or hype?," Jan. 20, 2007

When most pregnant women go into labor, their hope is to deliver quickly. When Julia Gotschlich's water broke on New Year's Eve, she was hoping for a lengthy delivery. Her first thought, she told the Associated Press, was, "Can't you wait a little longer?"

Gotschlich is not a glutton for punishment, but she is German, and babies born in 2007 and after will be worth thousands of dollars to their parents. A German program, which began Jan. 1, allows new parents who stop working to receive two-thirds of their net wages for 12 months; they'll receive an even higher percentage if they're poor, and the government will extend the benefit to 14 months if the second parent leaves the work force when the first one returns.

This "parent money" program is very different from the child tax credit in the United States, which allows taxpaying parents to keep a little bit more of their money than other taxpayers keep. The German program is more like America's old welfare system, except that its benefits go to people in every income group. Gotschlich's daughter Inka did "wait a little longer," and the fact that she was born in 2007 instead of 2006 translates into more than $13,000 for Gotschlich and her husband.

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Such a massive payout is part of a frantic attempt by the German government to stem a drop in fertility rates that is, to one degree or another, haunting every nation in Europe. If Germans-and Spaniards and Italians and Russians-don't begin to have more children very quickly, Europe by mid-century will be a demographic and economic shell of its current self.

German officials would never phrase it this way, but what they are trying to do is prod Germans into pursuing what Augustine called "splendid vices." Outside of God's grace, Augustine said, nobody has a genuine desire to follow God's commands. Some other motivation-fear of the police, societal taboos, economic necessity, even conscience (which is shaped in part by external forces)-is needed to convince people to do what is right. The good works that follow are "splendid" because they benefit society; they're vices because they aren't done for spiritually pure reasons-love for God and neighbor-and they will be of no value on Judgment Day.

In today's post-Christian and (relatively) prosperous Europe, all of the secular reasons to follow the Genesis 1:28 command to "be fruitful and multiply" ceased to exist years ago. A child was once valuable as an extra pair of hands to work on the farm, but few Europeans live on farms nowadays. And with their governments promising to provide for them in old age, Europeans no longer need children for that, either. For many of today's Europeans, children are unproductive expenses-and impediments to what they see as an enjoyable life.

The result: Europeans, at alarming rates, are having fewer of them. Fertility rates have dropped well below the replacement level (2.1 live births per female) in every major industrial democracy except the United States. A report from Germany's Federal Statistics Office predicts that Germany's population will likely fall from 82.4 million now to between 69 million and 74 million in 2050. Populations in other European countries are set to fall as well, and Japan's has already started declining. Nobody really knows how severe the economic effect will be, because long-term, voluntary depopulation has never happened before. But one thing is certain: The lavish pension programs that characterize Europe will be impossible to sustain.

So Germany is doing what Europeans have come to do best: throw money at the problem, and hope it lures enough people into the splendid vice of having children to gain a financial benefit. Short of a Christian revival, that may be all Germany and other countries can do. (In a study of European populations, Eric Kaufmann of the University of London found that only age and marital status are stronger predictors than religion of a European woman's fertility.)

But Germany's new program is not without risks: If it induces single women into having children out of wedlock, then Germany will have solved one social problem by creating a host of others.

Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is managing editor of WORLD magazine.

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