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Hear why this Italian couple argue about whether they should have children
02:41 - Source: CNN
Rome CNN  — 

Italy, a country once known for its big families gathered around the dinner table, is facing a crisis of unparalleled proportions.

For the first time, the number of births in a year fell below 400,000 – representing an average of 1.25 babies per woman, according to official figures for 2022.

This means that the replacement rate is now negative, since the number of deaths currently exceeds the number of births – 12 deaths for every seven births.

Italy is the world’s 8th largest economy and has a population of just under 60 million. In 2022, the southern European country registered just 393,000 babies, according to the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT), the lowest since records began in 1861.

Babies born in Italy to unregistered migrants and to some same-sex and heterosexual Italian couples who used surrogacy abroad are not automatically part of the official record, according to Italy’s national birth registrar.

And if the trend does not reverse itself, the country could face an economic “dark age,” as there will be a decline in the number of people entering the workforce even as more people retire.

“In our pension system, which is a pay-as-you-go system, where the current workers pay for the pension benefits of the current retired people, this will create a big challenge and burden,” Maria Rita Testa, a professor of demography at Luiss University in Rome, told CNN.

“The projections by the government show that the peak in terms of pension spending will be reached in 2044,” Testa said, to meet the needs of the large baby boomer generation.

By 2030, Italy can expect 2 million workers to have entered retirement with no corresponding new members of the workforce to pay their pensions, according to Testa.

The birth rate in Italy has been declining steadily since the economic crisis in 2008, for reasons demographers agree is rooted in economic insecurity. The average monthly income across Italy is €2,475 a month, according to ISTAT. But the average rental property is €12.12 ($13.16) per square meter, meaning a 100 square meter family apartment costs €1,212 ($1,316) – roughly half the monthly budget.

Italy also used to be a country of savers, with the average Italian saving 20% of annual income, according to ISTAT figures, in part because many families live in multi-generational homes or homes bought by their parents. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Italy locked down, the annual savings rate dropped to just over 11% by July 2020, and dropped further, to just over 5% of annual income, as of January 2023, according to the World Bank and ISTAT.

For couples of child-bearing age, many of whom are just entering the workforce, that translates to hesitancy when it comes to starting a family. “For those who have to decide to make the transition to parenthood, to become parents, the big problem is to find a solid job [and] economic independence to allow them to get the credit to buy a house and to start building a family,” Testa said.

In order to spur a baby boom, the Italian government has been toying with incentives, starting with the government of Mario Draghi, which in May 2021 introduced monthly payments of up to €175 ($190) per child, a policy which has been continued by the government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Draghi’s plan included pumping $25.4 million into the economy to boost childcare and hire more women and young people.

But other countries, including Germany and France, do far more for potential parents, although that doesn’t always translate to higher birth rates. In Germany, where new parents can take up to three years of partially paid or unpaid maternity leave, the birth rate is just slightly higher than Italy, at an average of 1.4 babies per woman for the first half of 2022.

In France, the birth rate is higher at 1.8 children per woman, according to figures for 2022 from its national statistics agency.

The situation in Italy is unique for two reasons. The Catholic Church, which is a predominant political force, and the right-wing government under Meloni have both lamented the low birth rate, but have put up roadblocks to ways to remedy the situation.

Meloni’s government has promoted the traditional family, criticized assisted reproduction like surrogacy for both heterosexual and gay couples, and rejected the idea of offering birth right to immigrants, even to those born of permanent, tax-paying residents.

“I want a country where it’s not scandalous to say we are still born from a man and a woman and where it’s not a taboo to say that maternity is not for sale or that we don’t rent uteruses,” Meloni said last week at a conference to address the dwindling birth rate.

Pope Francis, who also attended the conference, said that a lack of births meant a lack of hope, and hinted at the idea that “acceptance and inclusion” beyond Italian borders could help populate the country.

Italy is undergoing an unprecedented surge in irregular migration, with 45,510 people arriving in Italy by sea between January 1 and May 16 this year.

None of those arriving are guaranteed asylum or protection unless they undergo a lengthy asylum process. And none of the babies born during that process will be counted in Italy’s demographic statistics or integrated into Italian society, because they are now kept in migrant camps after Italy declared a state of emergency last month.

Francesco Lollobrigida, Meloni’s brother-in-law and the country’s minister of agriculture, raised eyebrows last month when he suggested that Italians “were at risk of ethnic replacement” if migration wasn’t put in check. “That’s not the way forward,” he said.

Gabriele De Luca and Claudia Giagheddu Saitta discuss their concerns about having a child amidst Italy's economic insecurity.

Claudia Giagheddu Saitta, 27, and Gabriele De Luca, 31, are concerned about raising a family with so many uncertainties. Tax cuts on baby products and birth incentives aren’t enough, they say.

“The government thinks €10,000 ($10,800) is enough to have a child. But the incentives are temporary. A child lasts forever,” Giagheddu Saitta says. She says the idea of having more than one child, if she has one at all, feels impossible.

De Luca blames the government for not doing enough for the younger generation, in part because decades of low birth rates have made the youth a minority. He says that because governments are voted in by people in their 50s, 60s and 70s, their interests come first. “The government has to take risks. They have to take unpopular decisions if they really want to stimulate growth. They have to represent the side of the youth.”

Less than one quarter of women born in 1980, who are now 43, have children, according to the national birth registrar. Some want children, but can’t afford them, and others are choosing to remain childless.

Italian mothers are the oldest in Europe and, according to a number of professionals CNN spoke to, it is because they feel they need to reach a certain level of financial and a work stability before they’re comfortable starting a family, which is usually in their 30s.

Testa fears that the low birth rate is contagious. It used to be that foreigners living in Italy had far more children than Italian women, but now they are adapting to the economic climate and aligning with the Italian birth rate.

“The low fertility trap says if women and men get used to small family size it might become the ideal, the reference model,” she says. “And if it is a reference model, the one child family, the fertility (rate) will even go lower and create a downward spiral of low fertility.”