Spain's Low Birth Rate Blamed On Poor Economy

In Spain, the dismal economy is having an effect on more than people's pocketbooks. It's fundamentally changing families. Spain already has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe. But now that rate is plunging even lower, as the government cuts child benefits, and families put off having children amid economic uncertainty.

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DAVID GREENE, host: In Spain, the dismal economy is affecting more than pocketbooks. It's also changing the size of families. Spain already had one of the lowest birth rates in Europe. Now even fewer Spaniards are having children amid government spending cuts and economic uncertainty. Lauren Frayer reports from Madrid.

LAUREN FRAYER: Concepcion Fernandez is a 34-year-old new mom and a financial analyst in downtown Madrid. She took four months off work a year ago for her son's birth. Now she wants a second child. But in this economy, she says taking more time off is risky.

CONCEPCION FERNANDEZ: I think that this crisis is more about fear. They are not growing up families right now, because they are scared of losing their jobs and not affording to give anything to the children.

FRAYER: Fernandez was one of the last parents to collect child benefits before the Spanish government halted payments in December, prompting something of a surge in C-sections and induced natural births just before the deadline.

FERNANDEZ: We used to have it. A year ago, it was like 2,500 euros per birth. No, no, it's finished.

FRAYER: To understand Spain's demographics, you have to go back to 1976, the year after General Francisco Franco died and Spain moved toward democracy. Women went to work and college, and the birth rate dropped.

But 15 years ago, with the economy booming, Spaniards started having more babies again. Sociologist Jose Ignacio Wert says that baby bounce has now been cut short. He says job insecurity has led to a seven percent drop in Spain's fertility rate, in just two years.

JOSE IGNACIO WERT: A significant number of couples have postponed their decision to have a first baby, or enlarge the family, until they feel more secure in their jobs. Now, it's very exceptional that you can raise a family without two salaries.

FRAYER: In Spain, when you go to a job interview, you normally fill out a form that asks if you're married or single. Elena Gomez is a lawyer who recently started a new job. She doesn't plan to have children, but because she's 33 and married, she says she felt some suspicion from prospective employers.

ELENA GOMEZ: I think they are more likely to take a single woman. But right now they ask if you are willing to be married and to have children. Yeah, really. Yeah.

FRAYER: Gomez says even just the fear of discrimination is enough to make her generation of women think twice about starting families in this economy.

GOMEZ: I think it's more a reaction of the situation. So if you have children, you don't have the job you want.

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FRAYER: Of course, it's all relative. U.S. federal law allows new parents up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, though some states and employers offer more. In Spain, new mothers get paid leave for four months. Wert, the sociologist, acknowledges that Spain's system might look attractive to some foreigners. But...

WERT: Everything is better except for one minor factor: We can't afford it.

FRAYER: More than one in five Spaniards is now out of work, so it could be years before Spain's economy bounces back. With baby boomers aging and the birth rate down, Spain could look very different by then.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.

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GREENE: This is NPR News.

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