Macau Opinion | Baby’s money

The Legislative is discussing a rise in the amount of the ‘birth subsidy.’ That is, the money families are entitled to receive when a child is born. Most of the discussion naturally centered around the amount proposed, or the differences between the values for those working in the public sector and those in private jobs.

But the discussion also brought to the fore the issue of the ageing population. The measure appeared as one element meant to help reverse ageing and part of a set of more or less defined complementary measures with the same aim. These actions, either existing or future, relate mostly to health and education support for the younger members of the population.

However, it all rested more on general statements and ideas than on substantial and empirically tested assumptions. For that purpose, what was seemingly missing was a clear awareness of the complexity of the issue or the mixed and contradictory results obtained in various parts of the world by policies set up with similar intent.

A declared or implicit ambition springing from declarations and statements made by some of the participants, or included in the documents produced on the subject, seems to assume that the subsidy is a significant tool to increase birth rates. The consideration of the outcomes of birth policies around the world might have a sobering effect on such expectations.

All significant policies, and especially one that touches on sensitive issues like influencing reproductive behaviour and demographic patterns, will always need to be more than a catalogue of measures vaguely tied together. Similar attempts around the world have had, at best, mixed results. They depended upon a combination of various factors, not a sharply defined tool. Broader economic, social and cultural considerations play an important role.

While ageing is a real concern for our society, there is a reflection that has yet to be conducted. The Legislative Assembly could well promote a serious and extended debate on the relevant topics: demographic trends, labour force needs, ageing consequences, and the relations between those and social policies, cultural values and long-term economic and political trends.

Until then, the discussion is just about a minor subsidy, with negligible (if any) effect upon people’s reproductive behaviour and minor budget impact. It fits better a “wealth partaking” mindset than a meaningful policy-making effort to deal with ageing social or economic effects. (And may St. Valentine’s play a part in the policy mix!)