Bernardo M. Villegas
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Encouraging Large Family in Europe

          A large family in Barcelona recently made news all over the world when the father died of liver cancer.  The family headed by Jose Maria “Chema” Postigo was awarded last 2015 the title “The Great European Family” by the European Large Families Confederation (ELFAC) in collaboration with the Novae Terrae Foundation.  Chema with his wife Rosa Pich-Aguillera had 18 children of whom 15 have survived.  The first daughter of the couple was born gravely ill.  The doctors were sure she would not survive at infancy although she actually lived until the age of 20.  The next two also were born with health problems and actually died as infants.  The doctors recommended to Chema and Rosa not to have children any more after these three experiences.  The couple did not heed the advice of the doctors and decided to have 15 more (the two themselves came from large families since Rosa belonged to a family of 16 and Chema, 14).  I actually met one of the Postigo children, Juan Pablo, who is a university student in Seoul, South Korea.

         The award given to the Postigo family is indicative of the serious efforts in European countries to reverse the catastrophic decline in fertility that is causing a great deal of economic problems for those countries suffering from the so-called “demographic winter.”  As rapid ageing continues, practically all of Europe are facing crises in their pension systems and are actually forced to depend on immigrants to take care of the aged and the sick.  It is hard for GDP to grow at a robust rate if more than 30 per cent of the population are over 65 years of age.  There is also the psychological problem of loneliness when ageing parents are seldom visited by the children as they are increasingly “dumped” into homes for the aged.  Anyone in the Philippines thinking of the next thirty to fifty years will make sure that policies we implement today will not have the long-term impact that we are now seeing, not only in Europe but in a good number of East Asian countries, especially those to our north like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and even China.

         Those who are so obsessed with population control in the Philippines because of the widespread poverty that they refuse to address through more positive means will predictably say that the problems of the rich countries like those in Europe and Northeast Asia are different from those of the impoverished countries today. This attitude is both short-sighted and flies against hard evidence already available today.  A recent article by an economist of Standard Chartered, Samantha Amerasinghe, presented a gloomy future for some still undeveloped countries of today.  According to her study, the most rapidly ageing societies in the future will be Asian countries like Thailand and China who are far from being fully developed.  These countries will have the dubious reputation as the first countries in the world to grow old before getting rich.  These countries are still far for having high-income economies.  In contrast, Japan, South Korea, and most of the rest of the OECD had relatively young populations when they hit the high-income bracket.   The most serious problem for countries that are ageing prematurely is the non-sustainability of their pension systems.  China’s nationwide pensions will possibly run deficits as early as 2030, followed later by Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam. 

         An important lesson we should learn from these ageing societies is that once a contraceptive or anti-baby mentality has developed among a predominantly middle class population, attempts to raise fertility are doomed to failure.  For the major economies, including China, Thailand, Japan, Singapore and Korea, fertility rates remain well below the 2.1 babies per fertile woman needed to replace the current population.  An ageing population poses a two-edged problem. On one hand, the predominance of old people in the populations will affect consumption and investment on the expenditures side.  On the supply side, it will cause crippling shortages in manpower.  Already, Thailand that has a per capita income one-third that of Singapore is already experiencing shortages in manpower, in both agriculture and manufacturing.  Because of increased shortages in their labor supply, China’s wages have soared over the last five years, driving away investors who are now relocating their plants in the remaining labor-rich emerging markets like Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

         All these should put a brake to the current predominantly emotional response to the problem of mass poverty based on so-called reproductive health measures which are really population control programs disguised as anti-poverty solutions.  Recent shrieking advertisements protesting the TRO imposed by the Supreme Court on the RH Law were full of unscientific arguments about unplanned pregnancies and unmet demands for contraceptives.  Time and again, there have surfaced evidences from scientific studies abroad (e.g. Dr. Lant H. Pritchett of Harvard University) that women, including the poor, generally have the number of children they want.  The myth of unmet family planning needs is a concoction of the imagination of well-to-do individuals projecting their anti-birth biases to the poor.  It is a no brainer to observe that mothers in  predominantly rural areas (where 75 per cent of the Philippine poor reside) consider children as indispensable in helping in farm  and household chores and as an investment in getting out of poverty once their children are old enough to find employment in the urban areas or as overseas workers.  To avoid the sad fate of countries now facing the demographic winter, let us always look for solutions to the problem of mass poverty that do not develop a contraceptive mentality among the population.  Once such a mentality sets in, it is generally irreversible.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia