‘Low fertility trap': Why Italy's falling birth rate is causing alarm

The country is now grappling with a declining birthrate that has left it with the lowest number of births in its history.

‘Low fertility trap': Why Italy's falling birth rate is causing alarm

Rome CNN --

Italy, once known as a place where large families would gather around the table to eat, now faces a crisis that is unprecedented in its scope.

According to official figures, 2022, for the first time the number of babies born in a given year was below 400,000. This represents an average of 1,25 babies per woman.

The replacement rate is negative because the number deaths exceeds the number births. There are 12 deaths per seven births.

Italy has just over 60 million people and is the 8th-largest economy in the world. According to the Italian National Institute of Statistics, in 2022 the country of southern Europe registered only 393,000 babies. This is the lowest number since 1861.

According to Italy's national registry of births, babies born to migrants who are not registered and to heterosexual and same-sex couples in Italy who have used surrogacy abroad do not automatically become part of the official records.

If the trend continues, the country may face a 'dark era' of economics, as the number people entering the work force will decline, even as the retirement rate increases.

CNN reported that a professor at the Luiss University of Rome and a demographer, Maria Rita Testa said: 'Our pension system is a pay as you go system where current workers are paying for the pensions of current retirees. This will create a huge challenge and burden.

Testa stated that the projected peak of pension expenditures will occur in 2044 to accommodate the baby boomer generation.

According to Testa, by 2030, Italy will have 2 million retirees without a new workforce to pay for their pensions.

Demographers all agree that economic insecurity is the root cause of the steady decline in birth rates in Italy since 2008. According to ISTAT, the average income in Italy is EUR2,475 per month. The average rental price is EUR12.12 ($13.16), which means a 100-square-meter apartment for a family costs EUR1,212 ($1,316). This is roughly half of the monthly budget.

Italy used to be a nation of savers. According to ISTAT, the average Italian saved 20% of their annual income. This was partly because many families lived in homes that were bought by parents or multi-generational households. When the COVID-19 epidemic hit, Italy was locked down. The annual savings rate fell to just under 11% in July 2020 and to a little over 5% by January 2023.

Couples of childbearing years, some of whom have just entered the workforce, are often hesitant to start a family. Testa stated that for those couples who are deciding to transition into parenthood and become parents, they must find a job with stability [and] financial independence in order to be able to obtain the credit necessary to purchase a home and start building a new family.

The Italian government is experimenting with incentives to encourage a baby-boom. This began with the Mario Draghi government, who in May 2021, introduced monthly payments up to EUR175 (USD190) per child. A policy that has since been carried on by Prime Minister Giorgia Melons government. Draghi’s plan included injecting $25.4 millions into the economy in order to boost childcare, and hire more young and female workers.

Other countries, such as Germany and France do more to help potential parents. However, this doesn't necessarily translate into higher birth rates. Germany, which allows new parents to take up three years of unpaid or partially-paid maternity leave (or a combination of both), has a slightly higher birth rate than Italy. The average is 1.4 children per woman in the first half 2022.

According to the national statistics agency, France's birth rate for 2022 is higher, at 1.8 children.

Italy's situation is unique in two ways. Both the Catholic Church, a dominant political force in Italy, and the right-wing Meloni government have lamented the low rate of births, but they have also put up barriers to remedying the situation.

Meloni’s government promotes the traditional family and criticizes assisted reproduction, such as surrogacy, for heterosexual couples and gay couples. It also rejects the idea of granting birth rights to immigrants, including those born to permanent tax-paying residents.

Meloni spoke last week about the declining birth rate at a conference.

Pope Francis, a participant at the conference, stated that the lack of births was a sign of hopelessness and suggested that "acceptance and inclusion" beyond Italian borders might help populate Italy.

Italy has experienced a surge of irregular migration that is unprecedented. Between January 1 and 16 May this year, 45,510 people arrived in Italy via sea.

No one who arrives is guaranteed asylum or protection until they go through a long asylum process. The babies born in this process won't be included in Italy’s demographic statistics, nor will they be integrated into Italian culture because the migrants are being kept in camps since Italy declared an emergency last month.

Francesco Lollobrigida is Meloni’s brother-in law and the minister of agriculture for Italy. He raised eyebrows when he said last month that Italians were at risk of being replaced by other ethnicities if immigration was not controlled. He said: 'That is not the way to go.

Claudia Giagheddu Saitta and Gabriele de Luca are worried about raising a child in a world of uncertainty. They say that tax cuts on baby products, and birth incentives will not suffice.

The government believes that EUR10,000 ($10800) will be enough for a child. She feels that having more than one baby, if at all she does have one, is impossible.

De Luca accuses the government of not doing enough to help the younger generation. This is partly because low birth rates over the years have turned the youth into a minority. De Luca says the interests of older people are paramount because they vote in governments. The government must take risks. If they want to really stimulate growth, then they have to make unpopular decisions. They must represent the youth.

According to the National Birth Registry, less than a quarter of women who were born in 1980 and are now 43 years old have children. Others choose to be childless because they can't afford children.

Italian mothers are among the oldest in Europe. According to professionals CNN interviewed, this is because many feel that they must reach a certain financial and work stability in order to be comfortable with starting a family. This usually happens in their 30s.

Testa is concerned that the low birthrate could be contagious. Previously, foreigners in Italy had more children than Italians. But now they have adapted to the economic climate to match the Italian birthrate.

She says that if men and women get used to a small family size, it could become the standard, the model. "And if the one-child family is the reference model, then the fertility rate will go even lower, creating a downward spiral."