In recent years, the Family Planning Association of Hong Kong (FPAHK) has been broadcasting a promotional video on television encouraging young couples to do family planning.
The video has drawn considerable public attention and sparked discussions about what is meant by an ideal family size.
Some accuse the association of promoting large families without considering how hard it is to raise children these days.
In fact, the FPAHK came up with the video because Hong Kong, like other developed regions, has become an aging society with its birth rate shrinking at an alarming rate.
If we exclude the number of children born in Hong Kong to parents who are not local residents, the birth rate in our city is so low that on average every female gives birth to only one child.
As numerous studies worldwide have shown, a society with an aging population is likely to lose its momentum both socially and economically in the long run.
So in order to guarantee Hong Kong’s sustainable development, we must stem the tide of aging and keep our population young.
The average family size in Hong Kong has been getting smaller over the past four decades, down to 2.9 persons per household this year from 4.5 persons in 1971. And the decline is simply accelerating.
Fewer and fewer couples are having kids, and more are having pets instead.
A territory-wide survey carried out by the FPAHK indicates a significant gap between the number of children married women wish to have and the actual number of children they are having.
Around 40 percent of the respondents said they wish they had more children. These respondents are mostly aged between 15 and 39, many of them well-educated working women.
The study shows that most couples believe it would be ideal to have two kids. In reality, however, the single-child family is becoming increasingly common.
To make matters worse, about 20 percent of married young women say they don’t want to have kids.
Couples who only have one kid or choose not to have any say their main concern is that raising a kid could be a huge undertaking and a severe economic burden.
Among the 19 measures the FPAHK proposed to boost birth rate, the four preferred most by women planning to have kids or to have another kid are: education subsidies, medical subsidies, free pre-school education and subsidies for renters and homebuyers.
Among those who are still deciding whether to have kids, the six most important factors that can influence their decisions are: education subsidies, medical subsidies, rental or home purchase subsidies, free pre-school education, allowances for baby formula and paid family leave.
The findings show that Hong Kong has a low birth rate not because young couples are not interested in having kids, but rather because they are put off by the huge responsibility and costs that come with it.
Many of them are forced to make a difficult choice: to forgo having their own kids in order to have a more manageable life and avoid economic uncertainties.
Having said that, I believe if the government really wants to boost our birth rate, it should introduce policies that can help reduce the economic and emotional pressures that come with having kids, and provide incentives for young couples to have kids.
To be more specific, the following measures might be able to encourage more young couples to become parents:
1. Increase the supply of Public Rental Housing (PRH) flats, raise the income cap for families applying for PRH flats, and help young couples to buy their own homes.
2. Allow couples with young children to work on flexible schedules and encourage employers to create a family-friendly work environment.
3. Provide employees with children more flexible annual leave arrangements.
4. Open more child day care centers across the territory, especially in regions where birth rates are relatively high, such as Yuen Long and Tin Shui Wei.
5. Provide economic assistance and tax allowances for young parents.
6. Provide more primary and secondary school places and improve the learning environment of students.
Apart from these suggestions, community response and support of the business sector are also instrumental in boosting the birth rate.
Given that it might sound unfair to require small business owners to bear all the costs of offering paid maternity leaves to their employees, the government should consider providing subsidies for these employers.
At the end of the day, whether or not to have children is a personal decision of the parents. But the government and society should still share some of the responsibility.
Children will become our labor force in the future and contribute to our social and economic growth.
Our society needs them and therefore we should value them.
The article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 18.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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