Nearly a year ago China reversed its decades-long policy of restricting families to having only one child. While the policy had plenty of exceptions, such as largely exempting rural farmers and ethnic minorities, it made an indelible mark on China’s demographic makeup. China has a significant gender imbalance, with 113.5 boys born for every 100 girls, largely a result of selective abortions caused by a societal preference for boys. In addition, China’s population will rapidly age in the coming decades leaving fewer workers to support a growing number of retirees. The change in policy last year was a welcome development, but it may have come too little too late. If China wants to prevent an impending demographic crisis, it will need to quickly reverse its low fertility rate.
China’s fertility rate was already falling before the policy was implemented and many of its neighbors experienced steep declines in fertility without a similar policy. This suggests that reversing the trend will take much more than just the repeal of the policy. Having one child has become the norm for most people and changing this societal norm will not be easy. In an age when more women are working, childcare costs are continually rising, and high-quality education doesn’t come cheap, large families make little economic sense. Not to mention the fact that even if everyone had two children, per the new policy, it is still below the oft-cited 2.1 children/women replacement rate needed to keep the population stable in the long-run.
Various methods for increasing fertility rates around the world have mixed success. Ultimately, the most effective solutions usually involve some combination of tax incentives and government assistance with childcare costs. This has worked in France, which has one of the highest fertility rates in Europe. Government assistance for raising children is not cheap, but the costs are lower than what will be needed to assist a rapidly aging population. Older citizens require more health care and some sort of retirement income, whether it be from savings or government pensions. Traditional Chinese society has cultivated the belief that children should take care of their parents once they reach old age, however, this only works when you have enough young people to take care of senior citizens. Going forward, China will need to choose between either increased financial assistance for those wanting to have children or increased assistance to the elderly or some combination of both. Otherwise, the country risks jeopardizing all the benefits that have come from several decades of significant economic growth.