Where children are "too expensive"

SEOUL — "Give Birth Without Thought and Keep Living Like a Beggar." What sounds like a curse was actually a public campaign slogan used in the 1960s by the South Korean government to curb the then-skyrocketing birth rate.

It was a time when the country was eager to boost its economy and saw the booming population as a drawback. Hence the threatening campaigns.

Today, Seoul is wistfully looking back on those days of population growth, as it tries to tackle a record-low birth rate coupled with a rapidly aging society, a trend that began emerging shortly after the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. The current cost of raising children continues to drive the low-birth-rate trend: These days, people joke that children are too expensive. 

“I don’t even want to think about having two children,” said Park Jin-hee, who has a 7-year-old son. The 32-year-old office worker said many mothers are forced to work to make ends meet, even if they would prefer to stay home with their children.

Park spends roughly 700,000 won (about $503) every month on her only son’s education, in a country where the average office worker can have lunch for 5,000 to 7,000 won (between $3.50 and $5).

With everyone pouring money into their children’s education, it is hard not to do the same, Park said, explaining the pressure people here feel when it comes to kids.

According to a blind survey of 25 mothers whose children attend a kindergarten located in a suburb of Seoul, more than half of the respondents said they believe people choose not to have more children because of the economic burden.

The economic climate is one of the factors that has “especially played a role in people’s delaying or giving up on having children,” according to a report on birth rate trends released this month by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Issues.

In a designated office in the Ministry for Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs, parents can find a range of services, from special tax breaks for families with more than one child to extra vacation days for men whose wives have given birth.

Although the country has seen a slight increase in its fertility rate over the past two years, it still ranks second-lowest in the world, with a rate of 1.2 births per woman, according to the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNDP) State of World Population 2008. The current rate is less than one-fifth that of the 1960s, according to statistics from the health ministry.

The complexities of educating children in a country where students can be seen filing out of cram schools after midnight add to the problem.

“It’s not like the mothers in the old days anymore," said Choi Woo-su, who gave birth to her only son in 2008. "You can’t simply have a baby and think it's enough to just feed the baby well and give him or her a lot of hugs. It’s like you have to think about what needs to be done for the baby, in my case, in its four-month-old stage. Things are so complicated."

Choi and her husband initially planned to have two children. But after having their son, they decided to stop with one. The reason: The 31-year-old mother said they were taken aback by the amount of money raising a child cost. Even though her newborn still has a long way to go until kindergarten, Choi explains having the baby adds an extra 500,000 won (about $360) to the couple’s monthly expenses.

The trend of having just one child has taken root in South Korean society.

“If most were having two or three kids, I’d probably have one more and try my best. But everyone has only one child, and no one says anything about it,” Choi said. “There are so many things you can do these days… I was going to attend baby massage sessions with my son, but I’m pushing it back until it gets warmer because he has a cold right now."