Is it time for Spain to address its plummeting birth rate?

Number of newborns has plunged from 665,000 a year in the 1960s to 380,000 in the 90s Government policies to guarantee the future of Spanish society have never existed

Manuel Ansede
The Ojeda Artiles family was awarded the National Birth Prize in 1969.
The Ojeda Artiles family was awarded the National Birth Prize in 1969.Labor Ministry

During the dictatorship, a bizarre annual ceremony featured leader Francisco Franco handing out a National Birth Prize to couples with the largest families. It was widely covered by the official media at the time.

Honors were given in three categories: one for the most babies born into a single family; another to the family with the most surviving children (a testament to the high infant mortality rates at the time); and one for the couple with the largest number of descendants still living at home.

In 1972, third prize went to Julián Amor Gómez, a 48-year-old blue-collar worker from Lagartera, Toledo province, who was married to Pilar Iglesias Arroyo, according to the daily ABC. “They have 18 children who are still alive and all live under the same roof,” the newspaper reported at the time.

We are witnessing a rapid decline in births and it seems that nobody cares” Julio Vinuesa, demographer at Madrid’s Autónoma University

In reality the prize meant nothing – the Amor-Iglesias family had to wait until 1987, when a Socialist government came to power in Castilla-La Mancha, to receive their own home.

Their case is an extreme example of how demographic policies have been absent in Spain throughout the years. A recent study of more than 38 million births between 1941 and 2010 reflects the consequences of the lack of such policies.

As pediatrician Jesús María Andrés, who authored the study, puts it: Spain has been suffering from an “incredible” decline in birth rates.

Figures from the National Statistics Institute (INS) show there was a peak in 1944, with 23 births per 1,000 inhabitants. But that number bottomed out in 1998 when only nine births per 1,000 were reported.

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“We have seen an incredible decline in the birth rate, which has been cut by half since 1975, and this trend is here to stay,” says Andrés, of the University of Palencia.

Published in the journal Anales de Pediatría (Annals of pediatrics), the study blames sociocultural factors for these changes: higher family incomes, more women in the workforce, and progressive lifestyles, which make marriages such as the Amor-Iglesias union practically a thing of the past.

The study, which excludes figures for the exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the northern coast of Africa, uses data up to 2010. But its authors admit that their analysis is “unable to gauge how the current Spanish economic crisis” has affected birth rates.

Nevertheless, Andrés says studies such as these should be important for Spanish authorities so they can “plan for the future,” especially when it comes to allotting resources for pediatric services, education and pensions.

There has been a lack of research on Spanish population changes during the past century

But for Julio Vinuesa, a demographer at Madrid’s Autónoma University, the study doesn’t provide any new information, but simply reiterates the fact that there has been “a drop” in Spanish birth rates.

“We are witnessing a rapid decline in births and it seems that nobody cares. In the short term it is a relief because it means less spending for families and for the state, and nobody is complaining because no one stops to think about the future consequences,” he says.

Vinuesa, who has written manuals for the INE, criticizes the lack of research on Spanish population changes during the past century, and the resulting absence of appropriate policies.

“Spain has sailed through the 20th century in a complete blank when it comes to demographic policies, and there is no hint that this will be corrected,” he says.

British economist Paul Wallace, author of Agequake, which investigates the causes and effects of population aging, has argued that the major investment for any society must be in its own replacement. In this case, Spain has failed.

The birth rate has dropped spectacularly while the population continues to age.
The birth rate has dropped spectacularly while the population continues to age.Marcos Balfagón

This is a well-known fact but, as Vinuesa points out, there is broad speculation as to why this has occurred.

A decade ago, the demographer tried to explain the bump in births across Spain. During the 1970s, there were an average of 665,000 births a year compared with 380,000 in the 1990s. However, the number of women of childbearing age had also risen from eight million in 1970 to more than 10 million in 1996.

For that reason, the first clue to surface was the reduction in fertility. Spain went from being a country with the highest birth rate in Europe (2.90 children per woman in 1970) to having the lowest rates in the world (1.15 in 1998), Vinuesa said. But why?

During the Franco regime, Spanish society expected women to marry and have children. But that role was fading.

At the same time, during the second half of the 20th century, children stopped bringing home the bacon for the family and instead became “luxury goods” – as Nobel-winning economist Gary Becker once put it. Women also began holding jobs outside the home to support the family’s demand for better quality of life and increased consumerism.

But as Vinuesa points out, these have been common factors in all developed societies, yet the drop in the Spanish birth rate is unparalleled. What is the explanation then? Why is Spain different?

No one is sure why Spain’s birth rate has declined over the years, but there is a lot of speculation on the matter

A decade ago, Vinuesa would have answered those questions with an arsenal of data. The proportion of births that took place within a marriage was almost 90 percent, compared to 60 percent in countries such as France, Sweden and Denmark. Buying a home meant spending half of the family income, making the Spanish housing market one of the most expensive in the world. And public housing rental only represented two percent of the market, compared to 18 percent across the EU.

At the same time, the percentage of young people between 25 and 29 who still lived with their families at home, often unemployed or holding precarious jobs, exceeded 60 percent, compared with ratios below 20 percent in Germany, France and Britain.

For the past 10 years, Vinuesa has been pushing for “policies to encourage fertility." But no one has listened to him.

“They never have existed,” he says.

Meanwhile, the plunge continues.

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