New Zealand’s fertility collapse

New Zealand’s fertility rate for the year ending in June 2020 has slipped to 1.69 children per woman. “Slipped” is probably too mild a term for the decline actually. In 2010, only a short decade ago, the fertility rate was 2.18, thus in ten years it has fallen by over 22 per cent. This is a fertility rate that has plunged and is now sitting at a level never seen before in New Zealand (at least as far as records can judge). We are far below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman and are in danger of being placed in the same basket as Europe and East Asia when it comes to fecundity.

This fertility rate collapse has largely gone unnoticed in this country. The media is largely focused on discussing ad infinitum the second wave of COVID and lockdown levels. Indeed, the COVID story has even swallowed up much talk of the election which is due to be held in about five weeks’ time (delayed already for a month due to the effects of the last lockdown). In fact, the whole election thing seems a bit lacklustre and everyone seems to be going through the motions. Even the horrendous eye-sores which are political hoardings seem a little bit more sheepish and unobtrusive than normal years.

This lack of interest in the election is itself interesting, because at the same time there are some policies of significance being put out by the various parties. Perhaps the reason that the heat doesn’t seem to be in the campaign is that there is little debate about the lockdowns and COVID and thus little to get excited about in this area of policy in which everyone’s interest is focussed.

But one of these non-COVID policies that have been announced is a “first 1000 days” policy from the main opposition party, National. This is designed to help parents in the first three years of their children’s life by providing up to $3000 worth of services free of charge. These services include obstetricians, specialists, home-based support for learning “mothercraft skills”, home-based visits from health professionals, mentoring, community programmes and more hours at early childhood facilities for older children. High-risk parents will receive an additional $3000 to spend on these parental services.

In addition, the policy funds a three-day stay at hospital for new mothers (the current practice is to kick you and baby out asap to either go home or to birthcare facilities). This part of the policy is particularly appealing, as nothing was more designed to raise jealousy than being told that your parents were able to stay in hospital for a week when they had their children. Finally, the party has committed to allowing both parents to take parental leave at the same time, something that is currently not allowed.

The policy is expected to a quarter of a billion dollars, small change in the context of what is being promised and spent in these unprecedented debt-binging times. The policy will also be partly paid for by National’s policy on unwinding the current cash payment that each family gets by making it means-tested. 

Whether or not this policy is implemented depends on National’s success at the election in 5 weeks’ time and its chances are looking very slim at the moment. Whether this policy will make any difference to New Zealand’s fertility rate is another question…experience overseas suggests that such policies are useful around the edges, but it is unlikely that vast numbers of couples will decide to have more children on the promise of a few thousand dollars’ worth of services. Or even for three nights in hospital…

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Author: Marcus Roberts


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