A small county pushes back against South Korea’s suicidal birth rate
It is fascinating to observe a species that is conscious of its impending extinction but also trying to prevent it. Are human beings the only ones capable of self-consciousness? Are radical individualism, hubris and egomania found in other creatures of kingdom Animalia?
That is a delightful topic for a long-winded, well-lubricated after-hours discourse. Knock yourself out.
Demographic basket case
Speaking of impending extinction: Mercator readers should know that South Korea has the lowest fertility on the planet at 0.77, barely a third of the replacement level of 2.1. And there’s more disturbing news. Preliminary data just released says the country’s fertility rate for second quarter 2023 was 0.70, a shocking 9 percent below that of last year.
South Korea is the only OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) country with a fertility rate below 1.0, and the population has been declining for several years.
Along with Japan and China, the government of South Korea is in a tizz to reverse or at least stop the decline. However, these East Asian countries want to boost the numbers of their own people rather than open the floodgates to mass immigration. This way the challenges of falling fertility are not obscured by balkanizing the country with an unending stream of cheap labor migration. They know better. This favoritism for the home team helps preserve social cohesion and community spirit. Yes, Virginia, diversity mania withal, there are consequential upsides to a homogenous society.
As for South Korea, it is known far and wide as a demographic basket case. Closing schools and medical clinics has annihilated any doubt that the road to extinction will be a rough ride, considering the inevitable economic implosion from a sustained birth dearth. They at least understand the problem. They may also have stumbled onto a solution.
Let’s not get our hopes up just yet, but there is an interesting case of demographic pushback, if you will, unfolding in tiny Hwacheon County, South Korea. It is catching the attention of forward-looking Koreans who want to see their nation survive.
Recently in this space we discussed Nagi, Japan’s ‘miracle town’ and their success at bucking the trend of declining fertility.
Do we have the makings of a ‘miracle county’ in South Korea? Like Nagi in Japan, Hwacheon County has figured out that local government and local people have the best solution to what ails them. Thus far both Nagi, Japan, and Korea’s Hwacheon County are successfully implementing a future-oriented family-friendly agenda.
Hwacheon County is nestled in the north of South Korea’s Gangwon Province up there by the infamous DMZ separating North and South Korea. The county is largely pastoral, with a beautiful landscape that belies the tense ongoing military standoff immediately to its north.
The county has about 24,000 residents, but government officials are intensely concerned about falling fertility. They have taken a “think globally act locally” approach. After seeing the limited success of baby bonuses and lump sum payments enacted in other countries, Hwacheon County’s Mayor Choi Moon-soon said: “We want to provide equal opportunities for people regardless of their economic background from the time child is in womb until the child graduates college.” Now that’s thinking big!
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The Korea Institute of Local Finance recently issued a report indicating that improving childcare infrastructure is more fertility friendly than cash payments to families. Their findings are that increased services and facilities reduce out-of-pocket childcare expenses, which has a more positive impact on overall family finances than direct cash payments.
That was the thinking of Hwacheon County planners. And get this: In 2021, the prosperous Jung District of Seoul far outspent any other jurisdiction in South Korea, investing 2.1 million won per child (US$1,580). Which jurisdiction spent the second highest amount per child? Tiny Hwacheon County, at 830,000 won (US$625). Not bad for a rural county of fewer than 25,000 folks.
Here is what they’re doing.
The County pays college tuition. Doesn’t matter if college is outside the country, they’re good for it. To qualify, the student’s parents must have been resident in Hwacheon for three years. In multiple surveys young South Koreans cite the high costs of education as a major reason for not having children. Education is effectively a cultural priority, and not being able to finance a child’s education is a crushing blow.
A postpartum rest center has opened. This is a clinic where staff care for newborns while the new mother can rest and recuperate. The typical stay is two weeks, fully covered by the county. During that period there is professional counseling on the care, feeding and bathing of infants. Postpartum rest as public policy is something badly needed in the US. It gives new mothers a much-needed break and helps them transition to motherhood. Such clinical care is otherwise unaffordable. Sure beats getting kicked out of your room whenever penny-pinching “health insurance” conglomerates say it’s time to hit the road.
Another family-friendly measure: elementary school students can hail a school bus using a smartphone app. Parents receive a text message when the child boards the bus and then tracks its location. While this child-tracking app may seem like big brother government to some, it has been welcomed by parents as an enhanced security measure for watching over their children.
Hwacheon’s program includes measures to help with work-life balance and other subsidized childcare services. The county even funds school uniforms. This is a comprehensive approach, a non-woke version of “it takes a village.” Korea University sociology professor Shin Eun-kyong attributes Hwacheon County’s success to their comprehensive approach.
Did I say success? Yes indeed. In 2021 the county’s fertility rate was 1.2. In 2022, it was 1.4, a substantial rise. Hwacheon County’s fertility is way above the national average and headed in the opposite direction from South Korea’s downward trend.
While a well below replacement level fertility rate is hardly anything to write home about, reversing the birth dearth is huge. They’ve a long way to go, but a thousand-mile journey begins with the first step. Hwacheon County may be a small jurisdiction, but it punches way above its weight in fighting for families.
Can larger jurisdictions afford to have such expensive family-friendly measures? The better question is: can they afford not to?
Louis T. March has a background in government, business and philanthropy. A former talk show host, author and public speaker, he is a dedicated student of history and genealogy. Louis lives with his family in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
Image credit: Bigstock
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