Tuesday, 3 November 2015

China's One-Child Policy (or Bye Bye Baby?)

Is it right for governments to decide how many children we can have?
China's decision to move away from the One-Child policy is a much-needed correction. Oh how ironic. A policy designed to prevent overpopulation is now being succeeded by a policy to spur population growth. However, just as China moves towards encouraging larger families, the UK government seems to be encouraging the opposite. Why is this? 

Since the earliest times, China has always represented a massive chunk of the world's total population. By the late 1970s, the Chinese government was alarmed at the rapid rate of population growth, and so it initiated one of the most controversial population control policies ever implemented.

The government enforced a One-Child Policy, although it was not quite so draconian as it seemed. Uttering the phrase "One Child Policy" gives you the impression that every single woman of child-bearing age is strictly forbidden to have more than one child, OR ELSE! 

In actual fact, the policy made sure that rural couples were exempt from the rule. Rural couples tend to be responsible for about two thirds of all children born in China. The policy is only really centred on the urban minority of the population, and as a general rule, urban dwellers choose to have smaller families anyway. As time wore on, the government loosened the rules. For example, it allowed couples to have a second child, if either of the parents had been a single child.

The policy was seen by some to be practically useless, given that China was already seeing a sharp fall in birthrates, in the decade prior to the One-Child Policy being announced.

Last week, the Xinhua News Agency announced the government's intention to scrap the policy altogether, in order to remedy a feared demographic problem, in the future.

Bye bye baby?

Just as China moves to save itself from demographic Armageddon, the UK appears to be doing the opposite, but in a far more subtle way. It might be bold to say so, but it really does seem as if the UK government is beginning to silently put policies in place, that support a two-child country.

As the Financial Times indicated in June, £12bn worth of planned cuts to welfare include limiting child benefits to households with one to two children in future. In other words, the government wants you to think long and hard, before going ahead, and having that third child.

But there's a big problem, that nobody seems to have actually acknowledged, when it comes to the UK's own demographic situation. The UK has, in effect, been a two-child country for over forty years. Displayed below is a chart, showing the average number of children a woman of childbearing age would expect to have during her lifetime, (England and Wales 1941-1972 and UK 1973-2015 provisional). Note the post-WW2 spike, the 1960s Baby Boom, the 1970s-1990s slump, and then the recent Millennial echo boom.

Source: Office of National Statistics

The horizontal blue line represents the 2-children-per-woman threshold. In order for a population to stay stable, the size of the next generation has to be equal to that of the preceding ones. Two children make up for the two parents. The UK's sub-replacement fertility rate has been in place since the mid-1970s, owing to the invention of the Pill, legalization of abortion and simply personal choice. People just don't feel like having as many kids as they did. If the UK had no net migration (which is not very likely), you would expect the UK population to stabilise and possibly decline in the coming decades. This is why net migration might actually be the UK's saving grace in years to come.

In short, a government policy to ensure households have 2 children may backfire spectacularly, and push already-low birthrates down to subterranean levels. 

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