The dearth in the number
Sabbadini: the gap between the number of desired children and the number of children actually born.
The serious thing is not simply the decline in births, but the large gap between the number of children desired and the number of children actually born. “People want children, but there is a serious problem in creating the conditions for them to become parents”. This is what Linda Laura Sabbadini, central director of ISTAT, the Italian National Institute of Statistics, thinks about the demographic decline in births.
The explanation can be located from way back. “Italy is a Country with a permanently low fertility rate. The situation was clear to scholars a long time ago, and they pointed this out. The problem was that no one thought that we would have an adequate strategy to cope”. This is best explained, states Sabbadini, by how long it has been clear with the statistics, “For a demographic balance, we should have an average of 2.1 children per woman. In the late 1970s we went below two, only to fall below 1.5 in the mid-1980s never to rise again. This, at first, was reflected in the younger age groups but, as it became permanent, it also impacted the working-age population over the years. Moreover, as this population declines, the 65-and-over population, the baby boom generation, grows. At the turn of the sixties, we had a level of births of one million per year, while now we don’t reach 400 thousand”. Thus, the number of potential mothers is drastically reduced: “A million children, 25 years later, provides a generation of women who, here approximating, is equal to 500 thousand; 400 thousand children, provide 200 thousand”. For the same number of children to be born, women would need to have more children than the generations that had children in the 1960s, which is completely unrealistic.
This bottleneck is compounded by the distance between desire and its realization. “The desired number of children on average is stable at two in all research”. But here are the obstacles: “We have never had policies that make it possible to realize this desire - explains the central director of ISTAT - We are a country that has disincentivized motherhood completely, in which having a child is a huge penalty for women. The female employment rate collapses when children are born, because one woman out of five is forced to leave her job. Either there is a family network, a grandmother or others, or, in large parts of the country, women are not able to guarantee the upbringing of their children and are forced to penalize themselves; for example, taking a part-time job, giving up assignments or even giving up work”.
This is because services throughout Italy are lacking. “The law establishing public nurseries, dating back to 1971, has not been implemented. Today, only 12% of children go to public nurseries and, in total, 23% do so. Children do not have a real right to have a place at crèches. The 2000 Lisbon European Council, which set a target of 33% by 2010, as well as a 60% employment rate for women, has also been disregarded. Twelve years later, we are ten points below in both cases”.
The crucial point remains the lack of social infrastructures. “Politicians in Italy have never taken it upon itself, neither as a center-right nor as a center-left, to adopt a strategy. Laws are made and not enforced; for example, the 1971 law on nurseries, but also the 328 law from 2000 on assistance for the elderly and disabled, falls largely on women’s shoulders. Consequently, we find ourselves with an investment in assistance policies for the disabled and the elderly that is a quarter of that of Germany’s. Yes, it is an investment, in the quality of life. While for us, social policies are considered costs”.
In addition, to overcome the demographic dearth, a process of redistribution is needed. “Just as we talk about income redistribution to combat inequalities of an economic nature, we must have a redistribution of the hours of unpaid family work in the home and in society. We need a different sharing of parental responsibilities in the couple and the reconciliation of life times in society, through services”.
It is a question of rights. “Rights for children, because the children who don’t go to daycare are usually the poorest; and they are deprived of a fundamental tool for good schooling. Rights for women. Rights for the elderly and the disabled”. And that, too, comes full circle. “The economistic approach, which considers actions that have to do with the quality of life as totally secondary, and pure expenditure, causes even lower rates of female employment, because it generates fewer services where women are usually employed. It is a negative chain reaction; on the one hand, women are overburdened with unpaid work, and on the other hand, the jobs for which many of them are trained are not created. Compared to countries like France and Germany, we have a lower percentage of women placed in public administration, health and care, simply because we have invested less in services, five points less than the European average”.
Something is moving, however. “The National Plan for Recovery and Resilience is investing a little more, even if not as much as would be necessary. We are giving ourselves a goal of 33% for nurseries within four years, the same as the EU had given us for 2010. It’s a step forward, but we must be aware that even when we have done so, it will be still too few”.
Another example is the one off payment for children, which is a help, but insufficient. “It has created some order among the many bonuses and is a useful tool to support the cost of children. We need to look to the situation in France, where a combination of a policy of strong support for the cost of taking care of children and a policy that focuses on parental responsibilities, development of social infrastructure and a reconciliation of work life balance. An allowance alone is not enough”.
Even when it comes to sharing parental responsibilities, there is a long way to go. “In employed parent couple households, 67 percent of the unpaid work falls to women. In the late 1980s, that figure was at 80 percent. It is a process that has made very slow progress, and it is not so much because the number of men has increased. Instead, it is women who have cut back, not on child care, but on service work, on cleaning, because they can no longer actually do it. For once and for all, we need to give equal dignity to social policies with respect to economic ones. This has never been done in Italy”.
by Federica Re David
Linda Laura Sabbadini
Central Director of the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT), she is a European pioneer in statistics for gender studies. In 1995, she participated in the World Conference on Women in Beijing. She has worked in particular on women, welfare, poverty, discrimination, migrants, environment, sustainability and volunteering.