Spain’s Falling Birth Rate Poses Threat to Prosperity


In just one generation, Spain has blossomed from right-wing dictatorship to prosperous, stable democracy. But as it looks to the future, it’s running low on a key raw material: babies.

This country where big families once were so sacred that they got medals from the government has done some number-crunching, checked United Nations figures on birth rates elsewhere in the world and reached an alarming conclusion.

“Spain is in last place,” says Florentina Alvarez, a demographer at the National Statistics Institute. On average, Spanish women have 1.07 children, nowhere near the 2.1 cited by demographers as the minimum needed for a generation to replace itself.

Spain’s population stands at 39.4 million, and the prognosis is that unless reproductive habits perk up or lots more foreigners are allowed in, the number will take a decade to edge up to 39.8 million, then stagnate.

“Basically, at this point, if it were not for immigrants our population would drop,” Alvarez says.


Much of Europe is in similar straits. Italy has a fertility rate of 1.2; France, 1.26; and Germany, 1.3. For decades, European countries have watched their populations gray, raising fears that pension money eventually will run out as smaller labor forces support more and more retirees.

The Spanish birth rate has been dropping since 1976, when it was a robust 2.8.

Spaniards are inherently gregarious; they find comfort in numbers. So for some it’s unsettling to see the traditional image of a large family chattering over the dinner table yield to one of Mom and Dad walking through a shopping mall with a lone tot in tow.

Sociologists blame the declining birthrate on everything from economics, such as a 15% jobless rate, low salaries and housing unaffordable for young couples, to cultural factors like couch-potato men who don’t do diapers.

As part of the dramatic changes Spain has undergone since the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, more and more women have joined the work force. The proportion has risen from 28% in the mid-1980s to nearly 40% now, Alvarez says.

But mothers trying to juggle career and family don’t get much help at home, and thus are discouraged from having more children.

“Spain is one of those countries where equal distribution of domestic chores has not taken root,” says Margarita Delgado of the state-financed Superior Council for Scientific Research. Italy is another, she says.

Advocates for aid to families say such help became a delicate subject in Spain because politicians feared assistance smacked of the Franco regime and its emphasis on large Roman Catholic families. It rewarded them with things like free refrigerators.

But officials now acknowledge that something must be done to encourage Spaniards to have more children. They say they can’t use increased immigration to boost the population because Spain is under pressure from the European Union to limit entries by North Africans who see Spain as a ticket out of poverty and a gateway to the rest of Europe.

Nor can Spain count on the 30,000 immigrants it does let in each year to be particularly procreative. New arrivals, even ones from high birth rate countries like Morocco, tend to adapt quickly to new surroundings and have fewer children, immigration experts say. The government says most of the 720,000 documented foreigners in Spain are North Africans.

Boosting the quota of legal entries “will only put off that critical day when we cannot pay pensions,” says Jose Ramon Aparicio, deputy director of IMSERSO, a Spanish government agency that helps immigrants.

The Popular Party of center-right Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar is promising to do more for families as part of its campaign for the March 12 parliamentary elections.

Now only the poorest families get any aid, and it’s a pittance--less than a dollar a day for each child under 18. Aside from tax deductions, middle-class families get nothing.

Other European countries do more, although the aid doesn’t necessarily encourage bigger families. Germany, for instance, pays monthly subsidies of $140 a child for the first two and more for a third, but still has a low birth rate.

The Spanish Federation for Large Families--meaning three or more kids--is leading the campaign for a boost in family aid. The group, which claims 8 million members, says it’s not out to encourage baby making, but wants to end tax rules it says hurt big families.

Such families shouldn’t be punished, but should be thanked for creating taxpayers, says the group’s president, Jose Ramon Losana, 48, who has a dozen children, ages 4 to 24.

“People tend to label you as crazy or illiterate,” Losana says of his lifestyle. “But, in fact, I am contributing society’s most valuable asset: people.”