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Pandemic fuels Italy's woes of low birth rate

The average age of Italians is now 47, the highest in Europe, forcing government to come up with a Family Act

Due to lesser students, from five classes of fifth grade, an elementary school in Caltagirone, a southeastern town in Italy, will come down to two classes in this year.
Due to lesser students, from five classes of fifth grade, an elementary school in Caltagirone, a southeastern town in Italy, will come down to two classes in this year. (AFP)

When Daniela Vicino started work as a teacher in Sicily three decades ago, she had up to 30 children in her classes. With the birth rate tumbling, that number has almost halved. There are now "18-20 at best, and even 15-16 in some cases. It is a very painful thing," said Vicino, in the southeastern town of Caltagirone.

Italy has long suffered one of the lowest birth rates in Europe, but the situation has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic - saddling the country with problems that go well beyond empty cribs. Last year, the Italian population shrank by almost 4,00,000 - roughly the size of Florence city - to 59.3 million as deaths peaked, births bottomed out and immigration slowed down.

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At a conference on the decline of the birth rate today, which was attended by Pope Francis, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said the average age of Italians was 47, "the highest in Europe". "An Italy without children is an Italy that has no place for the future, it is an Italy which slowly ceases to exist," he said.

Experts warn that fewer children today mean fewer tax-paying workers tomorrow, making any country less productive and less capable of providing for its ageing population. This has long been a concern for Western societies, but the threat looms larger in Italy, already the most sluggish economy within the G7 club of industrialised nations.

Draghi has promised more nurseries, support for working women and mortgage help for young couples as part of Italy's 221-billion-euro ($269 billion) EU-funded pandemic recovery plan. Italy's social security system is currently skewed towards the elderly, with health and pensions taking a lion's share of the budget.

Meanwhile, at the hilltop town of Caltagirone, famous for its ceramics and UNESCO-protected baroque architecture, like much of the country is facing demographic crisis. The number of babies born here each year halved between 1999 and 2019, dropping from 532 to just 265, according to national statistics agency Istat. This has put it in the top 10 of Italian towns in terms of declining birth rate.

"The figures do not surprise me," Mayor Gino Ioppolo. He attributes at least part of the trend to outside factors. He noted the closing in 2019 of a large migrant camp in nearby Mineo, whose residents used the birth unit of Caltagirone's hospital.

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Still, the demographic decline is apparent at Vicino's elementary school, where five classes of fifth graders are set to finish in June, and will be replaced in September by only two classes. At another local school, principal and ex-mayor Franco Pignataro said pupil numbers had plummeted by roughly one third in the last 15-20 years, to around 1,200.

"In the last few years, the situation has really got worse," he said, reporting that young people were leaving Caltagirone in droves because "there are no job opportunities".

Luca Giarmana, 27, a local resident, admitted to being part of a minority. Out of his high school class - almost 30 people - 90 per cent have left town, and only one has a child. "It's linked to a general decline in the economy over the last 20 years, to difficulty in finding work, having a stable situation, which are all prerequisites for deciding to start a family," he said.

In 2012, Italy saw births fall to the lowest level since it became a nation state in 1861, to around 5,34,000. Since then, new record lows have been established every year. In 2020, as coronavirus swept the country, the figure fell to 4,04,000.

For 2021, Istat expects a further drop to 384,000-393,000 -- largely due to an expected post-Covid baby bust across the world. In December and January - nine months after Covid-19 took hold in Italy - new births fell, year-on-year, by around 10 and 14 percent respectively.

As part of its strategy to reverse the demographic decline, the government is working on a so-called Family Act due to introduce more generous child benefits, longer parental leave for fathers, and other incentives.

The plan has been welcomed by experts, even if it might take years to have an impact. According to surveys, Italian couples say on average they would like to have two children - even if the actual fertility rate fell to 1.24 births per woman in 2020.

"There is a gap between the desired number of children, and the actual number people have," said Leonardo Becchetti, a political economist at Rome's Tor Vergata university.

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