'New Italians' birth rate boost prompts rethink on immigration


JUST OVER a year ago, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, suggested Italy was facing “a serious cultural catastrophe” because of its low birth rate. The cardinal, in a homily at Mass in Genoa, went on to suggest unless Italian demographics began to balance themselves, then Italy (and by extension, much of the developed world) was headed for serious trouble: “A society without babies and children, just as a society without the elderly, is seriously mutilated and unable to function,” said the cardinal, archbishop of Genoa.

It is no secret that ostensibly “Catholic” Italy has long had a very low birth rate. A majority of Italian Catholics long ago chose to ignore the church’s teaching on contraception and abortion, so that by 2004 Italy was rated the second most infertile country in the developed world, with a birthrate of 1.23. Currently, an estimated 25 per cent of Italian women opt not to have children whilst another 25 per cent choose to have only one.

Economists and sociologists have been telling us for years that such northern hemisphere demographics spell disaster. The ratio of elderly to young continues to spiral all over the industrialised world, with the obvious conclusion being that ever-fewer younger workers will have to pay (above all, via social security contributions) for ever-growing numbers of longer-living elderly. According to Italy’s national institute for statistics, if the current trends continue then by 2030 more than one in four people living in Italy (26.5 per cent) will be over 65 years old. As it is, more than one in five (20.4 per cent) is over 65 years old.

All is not lost, however. Irony of ironies, the salvation to Italy’s future (and in different measures, this again applies to many other developed countries) may eventually be found in the massive numbers of eastern European, African and Asian immigrants who have flooded into Italy in the last 20 years.

For years, senior centre-right government ally, the Northern League, has waged a campaign against the influx of economic migrants (boat people), often criminalising them and branding them “clandestine immigrants” who should either be bombed out of the water or put on the first plane home. In March 1997, the Northern League’s Irene Pivetti, a former speaker of the Lower House, speaking about violent problems with Albanian boat people, suggested: “If they start shooting at our navy and police, then we should just throw them all into the water.”

Fourteen years later, Italy’s 4.8 million immigrants (8 per cent of the total) are responsible for a surprise, positive trend in Italian demographics: namely that, after decades of decline, the birth rate has begun to rise. In the period 2008 to 2010, the birth rate was actually declining, from -0.02 to -0-08.

This year’s figure, however, is up at +0.42 (Index Mundi), with most commentators attributing this growth to immigrants, given that nearly all research indicates no change in the attitude of Italian women, especially working women, who in the current climate of global recession are more and more reluctant to have even one, let alone a second child.

The Italian birth rate, while some way lower than Ireland’s 1.06 per cent growth, is very much in line with those of its European partners such as Spain, the UK and France on 0.57 per cent, 0.56 per cent and 0.5 per cent respectively, while other European nations such as the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Portugal, Switzerland and Germany all register a much lower rate.

Doubtless, the centre-right government of Silvio Berlusconi would claim that it has played its part, particularly through various family incentive schemes. Above all, the Berlusconi government can point to a €1,000, one-off Bonus Bebè payment scheme that was introduced with the 2006 budget. Under this scheme, parents of newly-born children received a letter from Berlusconi himself telling them they were entitled to the €1,000 and also indicating where they should apply.

The problem about this scheme is that is has since been dropped, whilst in the meantime at least 8,000 of the 600,000 families contacted have been accused of attempting to defraud the state and threatened with a €3,000 fine, even though they did nothing more or less than follow the instructions of the original letter. In the best Italian bureaucratic style, it transpires that there was a deal of confusion about the €50,000 per annum income ceiling for those allegedly entitled to the scheme.

At the very least, the scheme appeared somewhat improvised. It has since been replaced by a much less generous “Fund For the Newly Born” which, rather than award a baby subsidy, makes loans available at lower rates to parents. Needless to say, the timing of the 2005/2006 Bonus Bebè scheme is inevitably suspect because it just happened to coincide with a general election campaign. Many concluded that it was nothing more or less than another electoral gimmick.

While the modern Italian state has traditionally provided an assegno familiare or family cheque for the less well-off (annual family income of less than €24,000 for “maternity cheques”), such benefits may well bypass many new immigrant mothers, given that to qualify for such benefits, the applicant has to have a regular, registered job, complete with social security contributions. Inevitably, the majority of immigrant workers in Italy, even if they are legally resident in Italy, work al nero (“in the black”, cash in the hand with no contributions paid).

Much research suggests that the “threats” seen by some in a growing world population – famine, food crises and shortage of living space – are illusory (see UN Expert Group meeting on Recent and Future Trends in Fertility, New York, December 2009). In reality, with better management, there could be food and space for all on earth, seven billion notwithstanding.

In that context, the Italian experience may be indicative for much of the industrial world in that Italy must come to terms with a change in how it views immigrants, seeing the “new Italians” as a vital resource, not unwanted invaders.