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Yle survey: All parties want family leave reform in face of birth rate nosedive

Finland's birth rate is at its lowest point ever. Yle asked each of the parliamentary parties what should be done about the baby slump. Home care, maternity benefits and early childhood education boosts are on many MPs' minds.

Äiti ja vastasyntynyt vauva sairaalassa.
Read on to see what Finland's political parties propose should be done about plummeting birth stats. Image: Emmi Korhonen / Lehtikuva

A poll conducted by national broadcaster Yle shows that Finland's nine parliamentary parties are all prepared to push through a long-proposed child care reform despite likely budget disputes.

The proposed reform would add 9.5 million euros to the single parent home care subsidy, 1.65 million to increase maternity benefits, 10 million to the parental increase to student aid and 3 million to the rehabilitation of mothers with drug abuse problems.

The survey was driven by a concern for Finland's birth rate. The country's seven-year birth rate slump continues, with the fewest children born last year than ever before in the 21st century. Immigration was the only thing that kept Finland's population growth in the green last year, according to Statistics Finland.

The responses to Yle's questions were assessed by professor Anna Rotkirch from the Family Federation of Finland.

"Our population structure is in a particularly challenging way right now," she says. "The baby boomers are retiring while birth rates are plummeting. In these culturally turbulent times, young people are hesitant to start families."

Challenges ahead, no more shaming

All nine parties are agreed: the dependency ratio – of people currently in and those outside of the labour force – is weakening, which means steep challenges for society at large.

The issue arose acutely last year to widespread critique when Social Democrat leader Antti Rinne spoke on Finns needing to "get procreating". The new poll shows that lessons have been learned, as parties actively avoid shaming the younger generation into making babies.

The replies also showed an awareness of unforeseen circumstances, in that not everyone is able to have children even if they'd like to.

"The responses were all about respecting the decisions and values of individuals," Rotkirch says. "This is of course the only sensible starting point."

Only the Finns Party's answers made reference to the possible upsides of a low birth rate. The party says a lowered rate can be seen as ecologically beneficial, but that overall the situation is unrealistic.

The Greens in their answer emphasise their view that funding the welfare state isn't something that Finns alone can do.

"Working people will have to carry a great health care funding load in the coming decades," the Green answer reads. "The problem facing us now cannot be solved with hiking the birth rate, but by improving employment and immigration."

Unusual unity, cost realism

Professor Rotkirch says the pro-childcare consensus seen in the poll is heartwarming. However, agreement is no guarantee for development, and the positive attitude is not always evident in decision-making.

"The most recent attempt at a family leave reform fell flat because parties listened to labour organisations," Rotkirch says. "Families and their representative organisations were barely involved last time."

All parties in their responses say there is little doubt that the new stab at the reform will be near the top of party agendas in the next parliamentary elections in 2019.

The reality of potential budget woes is also not lost on any of the respondents. The National Coalition Party says in its answer that "costs will accrue", while the SDP says "sufficient resources" for the programme must be guaranteed.

"Finland's level of compensation for family leave periods is the lowest in the Nordic countries," Rotkirch points out. "That means that families will almost certainly opt to receive home care support."

Party lines are also evident despite the seeming uniformity. The Family Federation says that the main point of contention will be between those who feel people should work to plump up the labour market and those who feel that supported child care leave is a societal bonus.

What to do?

The tangible solutions offered by the parties range from improving individual people's support methods to creating a society where childhood and upbringing are held in higher esteem.

Immigration is a crucial talking point for all. The Left Alliance would lighten asylum policy and improve family reunification. The NCP says that the means test should be eliminated for people coming to work in Finland from outside the EU.

Unsurprisingly, only the Finns Party and Blue Reform replies criticised immigration deregulation as a viable solution. The Blues also emphasise the value of a happy, cohesive family unit.

Taking a keener interest in the effects of politics on the daily lives of children is something that both the Swedish People's Party (SPP) and the Christian Democrats underline in their responses to the Yle poll.

ECE a top priority

Improvements to early childhood education (ECE) are near to the hearts of many parties. The SDP and Greens are open to universally free, high-quality services in child care. The SPP would pitch in for free care for over 3-year-olds, while the Finns Party would go for fully subsidising the poorest families only.

The Left Alliance says in their reponse that Prime Minister Juha Sipilä's "inconsistent" early childhood education calls have created inequality among children and that "focusing on quality of care and incentivising staff" is the way to go. The NCP is on similar lines, saying that care payments should be lowered further and children should be involved more in ECE policy.

The Family Federation calls for consistency above all else.

"The government should tell families that everything will be alright, we will support you," says Rotkirch. "We have to get away from this mercurial on-the-fence thinking, of cutting but also not cutting funds. The message should be children first, and the time for that discussion is now."

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