Thursday, September 4, 2008

The (illegitimate) way to more babies

Sep 4, 2008

Conservative Italy and liberal Britain provide lessons for Singapore

By Andy Ho

MORE births are being registered here without the babies' fathers being named. There were 481 such cases in 2005, 495 in 2006 and 561 last year, accounting for 1.28, 1.29, and 1.42 per cent of all live births here in those years.

But despite a dearth of babies, Government policies do not support such births.

For example, unwed single mothers are not entitled to Baby Bonus benefits, nor can they get a new HDB flat.

Inheritance laws, which bandy about the term 'illegitimate' without defining it, discriminate against these offspring.

One might have thought that babies are babies and the authorities would welcome them no matter how they came into being, especially since fewer young people are getting married.

In 1997, 20,633 young men aged 20 to 34 got married for the first time; last year, only 16,765 did. The corresponding figures for women were 22,527 and 19,999 respectively.

Moreover, people are getting married later, so they tend to be less fertile. Last year, the median ages of those who married for the first time were 29.8 years for grooms and 27.2 years for brides.

Back in 1997, the figures stood at 28.4 years and 25.7 years respectively. And way back in 1977, they were 27.3 years and 24.2 years.

In the old days, men were the breadwinners while women were valued for their domestic skills and child-bearing capacities. The family was the main source of social support, especially for women.

Thus, the norms then favoured earlier marriages and more babies. Young people generally married earlier and were more willing to partner spouses they might have regarded as less than ideal, for the family was the primary source of social support.

Today, however, these norms have weakened. People marry later - or stay single. One reason is that nowadays a combination of state, market and welfare institutions provides the kind of social support that the family used to.

Women work and can provide for themselves, employers provide health-care coverage, there are state-run schemes like CPF and Workfare, charities care for the elderly or destitute, and so on.

Once crucial to one's golden years, children are no longer necessary to take care of the retired.

In sum, marriage has become a less crucial institution, which is why divorces in the early years after marriage have also risen. The social structures that supported it have become considerably attenuated.

And here is the rub: Since these trends - late marriages, rising divorce rate, fewer children - are largely due to changes in the social structure, it is going to be very difficult to reverse them without also altering the social structures that gave rise to them in the first place.

And since those social changes are directly traceable, in the main, to state initiatives, there is going to be no easy solution to the problem of falling fertility rates that the Government can crank out.

After all, no government is going to transform wholesale the very institutions and policies that it believes have resulted in social stability.

For example, the Government cannot possibly suggest that women should now refrain from entering the labour force and, instead, stay at home to have more babies. At any rate, the structure of the economy as it exists now will not permit that.

Thus the Government can do little more than tweak the birth rate with Baby Bonuses, longer maternity leave, token paternity leave, co-payments for in-vitro fertilisation, tax rebates for more children, and the like.

In sum, if the baby dearth is the outcome of seemingly irreversible structural changes in society, the problem may well be an intractable one.

Still, whether to couple up with someone of the opposite sex remains a decision that pivots on what one wants to get out of the relationship - love, companionship, even children.

For some couples, being legally married is not necessary in order to gain any of these benefits

If more children are born out of wedlock, Singapore will have more babies. In fact, that is why the Britain's fertility rate has stayed around 1.7 since 1995 whereas Italy's is a paltry 1.2.

In a University of Pisa study this May, Italian economists noted that Britain's illegitimacy rate, which had been a stable 5 per cent for more than a century since 1845, first began to rise after 1960.

In tandem with that rise, the age of first marriages and the numbers of cohabiting couples in Britain also began to grow after 1960. By 2004, some 42 per cent of British babies were born out of wedlock.

Later first marriages also plague Italy. However, because the Catholic Church still plays a vital role in Italian culture, cohabitation and illegitimacy are frowned upon.

In 2004, only 14 per cent of Italian babies were born out of wedlock.

Crucially, while Britain affords its single mothers adequate public resources, Italy does not. Their differing fertility rates can clearly be construed as rational responses on the part of their respective citizenries to public policy.

In Singapore's case, even if its Government wished to go the British way and provide support to unwed mothers, it would have to contend with the conservative majority in the electorate.

On this matter, the Government is likely to remain pinched between a rock and a hard place for a very long time.

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