- Politicians rely on lavish benefits to make women have more children.
- Many women feel humiliated when someone wants them have children for money.
- Low birth rate is due to childlessness rather than small number of large families.
Four political parties of the Riigikogu want to double the amount for children’s benefits, especially in the support to families with three or more children. The politicians’ goal is to increase the number of childbirths with the money injection so that the Estonian people would not die out. At least this is how the initiator of the bill Jaanus Karilaid puts it.
A very lavish support could actually have the opposite effect because it knocks the social system out of balance. According to the bill, support to one child would be 100 euros, to two children 200 but to three children 1,000 euros. A number of women feel humiliated when hearing that the parties want to pay them for having children.
Choir conductor and music teacher Sille Kroon is expecting her fifth child at present. By the time you read the article, the child may have been born already. Her two older children live with the father, who is divorced. Kroon lives with two children, one nine and the other three years old.
Kroon says that she is not aware of rising food prices because she is among the approximately 300 families who receive a crateful of food once per week from the Tallinn and Harju County Association of Large Families. She contributes to the association’s activities as a volunteer. Moreover she switched a larger apartment for a smaller one to save on rent. «I could not have made the ends meet without alternative options, support system and opportunities for saving,» she says. «The family income dropped a lot during the COVID period.»
Kroon does not receive alimony from the other parent because her fourth and fifth child had been planned without a father. «I planned to have the fourth and fifth child on my own; there is no father’s name on the birth certificate. I pay for them. The first three children are shared with my ex-husband, he pays for the older ones and I for the younger one,» Kroon says.
Why want to bring up children alone? «It was my decision, I wanted it and it is easier than with someone else. I had a difficult divorce and it traumatized me. Fighting with an ex-husband is so difficult mentally that it seems easier to raise a child alone,» says Kroon.
Kroon says that after becoming pregnant she told her partner that would raise the child alone. «I am now happy with my choice,» notes Kroon.
She knows that some politicians say that a child must have a mother and a father. «If a parent is happy with their decisions, then the children are mentally healthy. The mother and father can be together, but if this combination does not work, the children will suffer anyway,» says Kroon.
According to demographers, the promotion of equality in the society contributes to the birth of children. Equality between men and women helps to relieve the burden of the mother who has to take care for the child.
Kroon says that all family models should be appreciated. «I am in favor of the cohabitation act, let them also accept that I live alone,» she says.
Kroon currently receives 139 euros a month from the state, of which 120 euros is child benefit for two children and 19 euros is single parent’s support. When a third child is born, the benefit increases to 539 euros under the current law.
Kroon thinks that it would be reasonable to increase the support for the first and second child to one hundred euros and the single parent support to 60 euros. «It would help a lot if the kindergarten was free,» says Kroon. «One hobby group could be free for every child.»
Being a mother today requires endless calculation. For eksempel, if the fifth child had been born half a year earlier, Kroon would have received a speed bonus from the state, dvs.. the «mother’s salary» in the same amount as with the fourth child. «Before the birth of my fourth child, I worked hard and had a good salary,» says Kroon.
Nu, imidlertid, the «mother’s salary» is based on the minimum wage, because the gap between two children was too long in the state’s opinion. The maternity benefit speed bonus was 30 months until 2020; currently it is 36 months.
The children’s benefit has not been increased for three years
The children’s benefits bill, the adoption of which would result in Prime Minister Kaja Kallas’ resignation, according to her promise, contains two parts. The first will increase the benefit for the first and second child from 60 til 100 euros from February 1, 2023. Children’s benefit has remained unchanged for three years, while the cost of living has increased by 20 percent since then.
The second part of the bill increases the support for families with many children from 300 til 700 euros. The covering letter to the bill justifies the steep rise with the statement that life has become more expensive.
The children’s benefits increasing act was initiated last week by 55 members of the Riigikogu, including members of all parliamentary parties except for the Reform Party. «In the conditions of shocking price increase, the bill offers families with children a sense of security, supports positive birth rate and helps to preserve the Estonian people and Estonian culture,» said Center’s Jaanus Karilaid when initiating the bill last week. Karilaid has two children.
There are 158,000 families in Estonia with one or two children receiving child support. There are 23,000 families with three to six children. The number of families with seven or more children is 126.
It will take about 114 million euros a year to increase the support for the first and second child, and approximately 113 million euros a year to increase the support for families with many children.
The child as a mental effort
Kadri Mägi, secretary of the Viljandi fire brigade, raises two kindergarten-age children with her partner. «I do think we are happy,» says Mägi.
She is well aware of the rise of fuel price because she lives about ten kilometers outside the city. «Child support could at least cover the costs of kindergarten,» Mägi thinks. The cost of keeping two children in a Viljandi kindergarten is approximately 150 euros a month. «If the child allowance went up to a hundred euros, it would be a great help,» says Mägi.
If the support for a three-child family should be increased to 1,000 euros per month, will there be a third child? «I’m not going to have more children because the state pays for it,» says Mägi. «I don’t know why money is not a sufficient reason for me to have children,» she notes. «Children should not be had only because the state pays a lot of money for it. Raising children requires a mental effort. It must be a person’s own desire.»
Piret Malv, a communication expert living in Tallinn, has two children, the first an adult and the second a 12-year-old. Malv says that the state should support children directly through free school lunches, hobby groups and sports training. «Then every child could train sports and the child allowance would not be spent on alcohol or other expenses,» says Malv. «A parent should not be paid to raise a child, but the prices of services should make raising a child cheaper.»
The monthly fees for hobbies groups in Tallinn range from 40 euros to 250 euros. Malv thinks that every child could have at least one children’s camp free of charge in the summer. «People would not move out of their homes because of price rise, but the children’s leisure time would be less costly,» says Malv.
She says that the politicians’ promises regarding children’s benefits are pure populism. «All children should be supported, at least through quality school lunches. If more money were used on services, it would be much better spent,» Malv believes.
Malv adds that she is middle-aged and no money would make her have a third child.
Researchers are hesitant
Political scientist Triin Lauri says that there is no consensus in the scientific literature on whether more children can be bought with money or whether there is a connection between generous support and an increase in the birth rate.
«It rather seems that the desire to have children is driven by a society which values children. Child benefits have a role to play in creating such a society, but also, for eksempel, flexible parental benefits, good basic education and norms, which take into account the pleasures and pains of having a child,» says Lauri. «You can decide in favor of having a child with a greater sense of security if you know that the life change can be reconciled with moderate workload, while cafes and rental advertisements do not ask you «with children and pets not to bother«.»
Lauri says that support for families with many children has already reduced the risk of poverty. Thus, single parents could be targeted next for benefits. «It would be reasonable to alleviate their problems because the last increase in child benefits did not help single parents,» Lauri notes.
Lauri has three daughters. As her first child is already grown up, she received large family support last in May. «In a family of two full-time employees, this support has been a nice relief rather than a necessity. The children are aware of their rights, I have had to tell my daughters how purposefully I have used the support,» writes Lauri, who is currently doing research in Oxford.
Kadi Viik, the editor of the Feministeerium website, says that the increase in child benefits for the third child seems disproportionate. «The pro-natalist policy of «buying babies» is out of date. Families need a different sense of security: a good living environment, kindergarten places, education and faith in the future,» says Viik.
In order to receive the thousand euro benefit, a woman must be tied up with pregnancy and childbirths for years. She would drop out of the labor market and opportunities of self-realization.
«It is the misconception of patriotic birth rate warriors that children could be bought for money,» Viik thinks. In her opinion, the thousand-euro support is a degrading idea for women. «It is a very scary idea that money makes someone give birth,» she says.
Imidlertid, the fact that money temporarily increases birth rates is a fact. After the 2008 crisis there were many families who probably took advantage of the maternity wage «speed bonus». 2012 was an anomalous year, with more second births than first ones because of that. The same thing happened in 2017, when the state started paying a third child allowance of 300 euros. There was a clear increase of third children. Birth rate also increased for a couple of years, but then this indicator returned to the pre-subsidy level. Millions and millions of euros have been paid in benefits, but women are still giving birth just the way they want.
One widespread myth claims that birth rate was higher in the Soviet period than after the restoration of independence. Imidlertid, that was not the case. Demographers Hanna Vseviov and Allan Puur wrote in an article published in the Academy («Estonian Birth Development and Family Policy Opportunities», 2019) that during the Soviet era, women probably started giving birth at a younger age due to boredom and lack of contraception. Cleared from the effects of timing, statistics show that women give birth more in the independent Estonia, although they do at an older age. Here we can draw a parallel with the faith in the future, to which Kadi Viik referred. This is clearly more the case in the independent state than during occupation.
System out of balance
Hanna Vseviov works as the deputy secretary general of the Ministry of Social Affairs. «Low birth rate is caused by childlessness, not the shortage of families with many children,» says Vseviov. «Support for families with many children had an impact on birth rate and may provide an additional impetus for having children even now, but focusing only on families with many children will not solve the problem of low birth rate.»
Vseviov says that there are more and more women who do not want or cannot have children.
She notes that Estonia is already one of the most generous countries in Europe in terms of support for families with many children. «But there are many other urgent problems. We are dumping money into child benefits, but we need to spend on social services. If a family needs help in case of mental health problems, a disabled child needs support services or if children have difficulties at school, then the social services are insufficient and not available,» says Vseviov.
Social services are a whole. If, for eksempel, paying for a place in a nursing home is too much for people, it also takes away the desire to have children. Or, if there is a remote medical counseling instead of a family practitioner, or if the parents of a disabled child are doomed to starving because the state simply does not pay them child care support, it takes away the sense of security necessary to start a family.
«The sandwich generation has a double burden, they have to take care of their parents and raise children – we do not know how many problems it creates in starting a family,» says Vseviov.
The sandwich generation means the people who are pressed between two slabs of bread, represented by children and parents.
Having a child is a cost-benefit calculation. The child takes the woman’s time and energy, therefore compensation measures help to decide in favor of the child. Money is just one of the measures but it is important that the partner bears a part of the burden.
«Birth rate is effectively supported by the possibility of reconciling one’s work and family life,» Vseviov says. «Career interruption, cleaning and cooking must not be left to the woman alone.» Equality as a value supports men doing homework, while paternity leave supports them in becoming closer to their child.
Vseviov says that subsidies not only increase the birth rate, but also alleviate poverty, because children mean costs. «Single parents face the biggest risk of poverty. Most single parents have one child, every fifth single parent has two children and there are very few single parents with many children,» says Vseviov. «If we direct money into the support of the first or the second child, we will target the highest risk group. This is why support for the first and second children could be higher. The increase in support for the first and second children will also reach families with many children.»
Vseviov says that increasing child benefits will further upset the balance of social services. Support for children with special needs and substitute care services needs additional money even more than child benefits. «The Riigikogu cannot find a few million euros to alleviate the insanely large sore spots of the social system, but it is ready to put over 200 million euros in child support. The social sphere needs more balance and much more money.»
Vseviov says that she has one child. «Money doesn’t affect me in any way to have another child. Maybe it would work with some people but not with me,» she says.
Allan Puur, a researcher at the Tallinn University, says that instead of the number of children born each year, we should measure the average number of children born to women in their 40s in every generation. This shows the sustainability of the population without distortions and the results can be surprisingly good. Puur has two children.
If anyone is worried about the imminent extinction of the Estonian people, it should be said that already in the early years of the republic in 1918–1940 the birth rate was below the recovery level. The birth rate was lower in the Soviet era as well.