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Pope Francis calls for incentives to boost Italy's ailing birth rate

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Pope Francis cuddles a baby as he exchanges holidays greeting with Vatican employees in December 2020
Pope Francis cuddles a baby as he exchanges holidays greeting with Vatican employees in December 2020   -   Copyright  Gregorio Borgia/AP
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Pope Francis has issued a public call for government policies to boost Italy's flagging birth rate amid rising panic about population decline.

Italy has the world’s second-oldest population and one of the EU’s lowest fertility rates, with 1.27 live births per woman recorded in 2019 compared to the EU average of 1.53.

Last year the country recorded 404,000 live births, the lowest number since its unification in 1861. A simultaneous spike in deaths due to COVID-19 meant the country's population effectively shrank by 342,000: the equivalent of having lost a city the size of Florence.

The decline, the worst recorded since the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak, recently prompted Prime Minister Mario Draghi to warn that if trends continue Italy could "cease to exist".

On Friday, the Pope used his Vatican address to call on Rome to create the economic conditions needed for young people to stay in the country and have families.

“It is urgent to offer young people the guarantees of a sufficiently stable job, security of having a home and incentives not to leave the country,” he said.

Italian government unveils a raft of post-COVID incentives

The Italian government has ushered in a €221.8 billion coronavirus recovery plan that aims to address the issue of a shrinking working population.

It will invest in day care centres and primary schools, as well as digital and ecological industries geared towards younger workers, while offering them help securing mortgages in Italy.

The Budget Law for 2021 retained a child-bearing incentive in place since 2017, the so-called 'Mamma Domani Bonus': a one-off cash payment of €800 for expectant mothers that can be claimed from the seventh month of pregnancy.

But it also introduced a new 'Baby Bonus': a means-tested monthly stipend of €80 to €160 for low-income new parents who have or adopt a child at any time in the 2021 calendar year.

Shia Muslim leader also sponsors child-rearing cash incentives

The Supreme Pontiff is not the only senior religious figure to have called for improved child-rearing incentives in his home region.

In Iran, where the population growth rate is also in decline, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - considered by his supporters to be the Pope's counterpart in the Shia Muslim world - has repeatedly demanded the same.

In February 2021 the Iranian parliament ring-fenced about €29.7 million to be paid in interest-free loans to 6,000 low-income, two-child families that have a third child by 2022.

It follows plans 10 years ago by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to pay a one-off 'reward' of €1,000 to parents for the birth of each new child.

Iran's incentives programme, however, came alongside a raft of draconian measures to put people off remaining child-free, such as prosecuting health workers who offer their patients contraceptives.