A Finnish miracle: warding off extinction one child at a time
Our story begins in 2012, in the tiny town of Lestijärvi, Finland. Lestijärvi was, and still is, a great place to live. Most of the 750 or so residents know each other or each other’s families. There is very little crime. Other than the severe winters, no big deal in that part of the world, what could possibly be wrong?
Well, in that happy tiny town, some wistful folks were noticing the lack of wee ones about. It’s fun to see the young’uns making faces, shrieking and running around. But at the end of 2012, the municipal government got some scary news: only one baby had been born in the town all year. She was (and is) a beautiful little girl named Kerttu.
That news – just one new baby all year long – shocked the locals. Not good. But some good eventually came of it, thanks to Kerttu.
How’s that? Well, little Kerttu turned out to be a wake-up call for the folks in Lestijärvi. While the number of newborns had been declining for years, when the news broke that Kerttu was the only new baby all year, it became incandescently obvious that the town had a huge problem. It wasn’t rocket science to figure out where this was headed. The school would have to close, people would leave, and the town would wither away. Something had to be done.
Now Lestijärvi is out in the sticks. The people are country folks. And those Finnish bumpkins, instead of sitting around whining about the coming ghost town or waiting for some bureaucrat in Helsinki to tell them what to do, took matters into their own hands.
I don’t know about Finland, but here in America when the bumpkins take matters into their own hands, the chattering classes cry foul. Insurrectionists! Racists! MAGA extremists! But local folks these days are doing just that as tyranny dressed up as democracy descends upon them.
Now for these small-town Finns, doing their own thing was just doing what comes naturally. And you know what? The next year, 2013, there were 14 new babies in Lestijärvi! The tiny town hadn’t had that many babies in a long time.
What happened? Lestijärvi started offering women a “baby bonus” grant of €10,000 (euros – that’s US$11,418) for each newborn. Sounds like easy money, but there’s a catch: First, the grant is paid in increments, the first €1,000 when the baby arrives, and another €1,000 each year for the next nine years. If the family leaves Lestijärvi, the grant stops. It does not start again if they return. The town wants families with children to stick around.
The program was an instant success. From 2007 to 2012, Lestijärvi had recorded only 33 births. From 2013 to 2018, 55 babies were born. Today, more than 60 families are receiving baby bonus grants. That’s significant for a town of only 750 souls.
Lestijärvi is not the only place offering baby bonuses, but it is the most generous. In 2020 the town of Virrat (population 6,000), started a baby bonus of €4,000 over eight years. The town of Simo in northern Finland has a €5,000 baby bonus, and Luhanka (central Finland) and Mehikkälä in the south have recently begun baby bonuses.
Handing out cash and baby supplies is known colloquially as haikararahaksi, meaning "stork money." Close to a hundred Finnish municipalities pay a one-time baby bonus of between €300 and €500.
Back in the 1930s when Finland was not so affluent as today, the government’s Finnish Security Institution (Kela) began sending a maternity package (baby box) to all new parents. The baby box is updated every year. It includes clothing and about 50 other items of baby necessities.
Generous baby bonuses in Lestijärvi and other towns have value way beyond the money. They are a huge public relations benefit, scoring a community’s reputation for being baby-friendly, thus pro-family. That attracts people in search of a family-friendly environment. Could we see pro-family “colonies” springing up in these communities?
Little Lestijärvi could have been the first sign of a turnaround in Finnish fertility. As yours truly recently reported:
Finland last had replacement-level fertility (2.1) in 1968, which steadily declined to 1.35 by 2019. While rising slightly in 2020, the first half of 2021 has seen a birth spike of almost 7 percent over the same period of last year. At least for now, Finland’s fertility fall has stopped.
In Finland each parent receives 6.6 months of parental leave and expectant mothers receive an additional month. With the onset of Covid, Finland extended parental leave and increased home care payments by 30 percent.
Lestijärvi’s success got people thinking. If bumping up the baby rate can work in a small town, can it be done in larger communities? Time will tell.
But here’s the best part. Baby Kerrtu’s arrival, Lestijärvi’s only newborn in 2012, led to the baby bonus beginning in 2013. So out of gratitude the town retroactively awarded her family the baby bonus. Now that’s putting your money where your mouth is.
Thank you, Kerttu.
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