RIGA - There are concerns government cuts to maternity and childcare benefits could cause a further dramatic slump in Latvia's birth rates and increase financial pressures on already struggling families.
Chief gynecologist at the Riga Maternity Hospital Dace Rezeberga told The Baltic Times there was evidence to suggest cuts to social benefits combined with Latvia's rapidly deteriorating economic situation could drive down birth rates within the next two years.
A similar drop in birth rates came following Latvia's independence in 1991 and the subsequent economic recession.
"Mostly it's related to the economic situation. Young people do not feel safe about their working place and their future. If people are thinking ahead and taking some steps then it may be that they delay having a baby. That is why we can suspect that not this year, but next year there will be a sudden drop," she said.
Welfare Minister Uldis Augulis announced on May 12 a 500 lats (711 euros) ceiling would be set on maternity benefits, which are currently equal to 70 percent of gross income of one of the parents over the previous 12 months.
Benefits for babies up to one year old will also be slashed.
The changes affect parents of babies born after July 1, 2009.
The move has caused outrage amongst parents, with a petition calling for the government to revoke its decision attracting more than 20,000 signatures in just over one week.
Husband and wife Sandija Salaka and Didzis Salaks, who founded Mother's Club, an organization producing parenting educational materials and programs, said the news was a devastating blow to families.
"Speaking about the cutting of social guarantees, it is quite shocking for families. Right now it could be a great loss to them, taking into account they have credit payments to make. For specific people it could be the worst case scenarioâ€¦It means thousands of Latvian families could go into bankruptcy," Salaks said.
The cuts, which have yet to be formally approved by the Latvian parliament, are expected to bring budget savings of about 20 million lats.
However, Salaks said the government's decision would further squeeze families already indirectly affected by government cuts to education and health care.
"Those 20 million for thousands of Latvian families is a lot; almost all they have. Speaking about these cuts, if they will have 50 percent less then it means they have nothing," he said.
Internet forums have been clogged with debate since news of the cuts became public, with many expectant mothers openly discussing their options online 's including opting for a caesarean section or inducing their labor early in a bid to avoid the July 1 deadline.
"Being pregnant is a special emotionâ€¦ now we have women discussing how to make it quicker. I think it's tragic," said Salaka.
Established in 2003, Mother's Club now has an informal membership base of about 25,000 people throughout Latvia.
Salaka said staff had been inundated with up to 100 e-mails a day from concerned parents since the cuts were announced.
Some 700 people gathered in Vermane Park and outside government house on May 12 to protest the cuts.
Salaka said a congress was planned in June to coincide with Children's Day in Latvia and ahead of parliament's next budgetary meeting.
Parental advocate groups are also considering legal action in a bid to stop the cuts.
Latvia's birth rates are among the lowest in the European Union, with deaths continuing to exceed birth rates.
Data released by the Central Statistical Bureau on Latvia's demographic situation in 2008 shows that Latvia's population continues to decrease.
At the beginning of 2009, Latvia's population stood at 2.26 million, a drop of 9,600 people compared to the previous year.
The data shows births in 2008 climbed to 23,900, or 675 children more than in 2007. The birth rate per 1,000 population also increased by almost 4 percent 's the highest indicator within the last 15 years.
However, parent groups believe the future will bring about a strong reversal in this trend as anxiety over financial security rises amongst families.
Director of the "Marta" Women's Resource Center Iluta Lace said the cuts would diminish women's standing in the workforce.
"When we had these sorts of social benefits in place it really facilitated working mothers and ensuring women were economically active in the labor market. Right now this [cuts to maternity and childcare benefit] makes life really hard," she said.
In a statement provided to TBT, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Welfare Ilona Jursevska denied the government had shown a lack of regard for families, saying consultations had been carried out with NGO and parental advocate groups ahead of the announcement.
According to Jursevska the essence of reforms to the parent benefit scheme is not to decrease family income when a child is born, but to ensure a more equitable system.
"Certainly the government is deeply concerned about support to families with children. That is why the final decision has not been taken yet and other changes are possible in respect of this benefit. The government and the parliament will consider the possible solutions and take a decision," the spokeswoman said.
"It is very hard to reach consensus in this case since the issue is very sensitive," she said.