TALLINN - In his annual address to the nation, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves asked young Estonian men to stop driving recklessly. Why? So there would be fewer accidental deaths and more young men who can start families. His bottom line was one that has been reiterated in different forms throughout all three Baltic states 's make more babies!
For the last 20 years, birth rates in all three Baltic states have fallen to the point where births can't make up for the number of people lost to an aging population. According to sociologists, the ideal total fertility rate (TFR) is 2.1 children for each woman of childbearing age.
This number ensures that there is one child to replace each parent, plus a few extra to account for child mortality. Though there have been indicators showing birth rates in the Baltics gradually improving over the past few years, each nation's TFR is still well below what it needs to be for positive population growth.
According to the Population Reference Bureau, the birth rates are at a dismal 1.6 in Estonia, 1.4 in Latvia and 1.3 in Lithuania. To make matters worse, even with a perfect TFR, death rates would still exceed birth rates due to the large older population.
The Baltics are taking action to prevent their populations from dwindling. Governments are offering monetary incentives for each baby born, paying couples to have more children. Benefits are generally based on former pay.
In Estonia, working women who have babies are compensated with the equivalent of up to 100 percent of their salary for up to 15 months. Additional support is then given on a monthly basis until the child turns three.
In Latvia, women with insurance are granted maternity benefits for 56 days prior to and 56 days after giving birth. Child care benefits are given to people who take care of a child or children under the age of three, as long as the person isn't working.
Lithuania's system grants benefits to mothers who have social insurance for 70 days before the birth and 56 days after. The parent who takes care of the child then receives compensation amounting to 60 percent of their pay until the child reaches one year of age.
These efforts do appear to be paying off in some places. Radio SWH Latvia reports that a stable increase in newborns has been noticed since 2004, and the number of families with three or four children is increasing.
Birth rates have also increased in Estonia, which now boasts the highest TFR of the Baltic States. Lithuania is not doing so well, however, as the number of births per mature female has actually dropped since 2000.
"I think the laws make it easier for the people who would have had kids anyway," said Maimu Tammeleht in Estonia. "But I doubt that people who weren't going to have babies are having them just because of the [benefits]."
Bribing people to have babies is having only limited success. The issue may lie in the benefits not lasting for enough time.
"It's fine to pay someone when their child is born, but that's only once. You still have to have enough money to feed them until they've grown up, and the government isn't giving us that," said Juris, a young father in Latvia.
This was a sentiment echoed by others.
"The support given for the first year and a half gives a feeling of reassurance, so the mother doesn't have to worry about finances and rush back to work... but the child still needs to be taken care of until he's 18, or longer," said Jaane Jarvi, a new Estonian mother.
Perhaps Latvia and Lithuania should consider reforming their maternity benefits to make them last longer, as with the Estonian model 's 15 months is still significantly longer than 56 days.
Moreover, Latvian and Lithuanian benefits are only available to those with insurance, while in Estonia benefits are promised to everybody in the work force. Students also receive monthly compensation if they have babies before they begin working, though it is a much smaller sum.
One factor contributing to the lower birth rate is that the average age at which a woman gives birth to her first child has increased over the past 20 years. In Estonia, it has gone from around 23 up to 25.4. In Latvia, it's also 25, while in Lithuania mothers are 26.3 when they have their first baby. Placing other priorities first and having babies later in life means fewer babies overall.
One area that benefits have been successful in is assuaging the worries young couples might have over financial matters after the baby is born.
"I think some people may not wait so long to have babies since they don't have to worry about losing income," said Tammeleht.
The government is not the only organization trying to inspire people to procreate. In Estonia, theatre NO 99 advertised one of their recent shows with posters that said "Man, make babies" plastered all over Tallinn.
Oru Kodu, a company selling houses in a neighborhood outside of Tallinn, had a campaign that, in addition to offering a special price on houses, also promised young couples a Kama Sutra book as a bonus. The campaign was advertised with posters showing happy young couples and the slogan "Start making babies!"
There's the classic Estonian folk song that reiterates over and over, "we must fill the land with children" ("Maa tuleb taita lastega"). Where once the song was a frank statement of how people lived, now it comes across as a command.
In the end, the government really has no control over birth rates. Politicians can't ask people to choose babies over careers and traveling, it can only be there to offer aid to those families that do choose to bring babies into the world.
The number of strollers and pregnant women that can be seen on the streets of Tallinn is encouraging. Perhaps with reformed support, Riga and Vilnius will see more of the same positive signs of a revived population.
Still, some Estonians are cynical about these attempts to make them breed.
"If you look at the way the government tells people to have babies, it's the same as if they were saying buy soap," said Toivo Poldveer, who works in advertising.