Pope warns that poor economic planning is behind Italy’s population decline – and UK is facing the same crisis, says Joseph Kelly

Speaking at a conference in Rome this morning on Italy’s dearth of babies, Pope Francis spoke of an urgent need for joint efforts to support families to address the country’s current demographic crisis, warning that “savage” free-market conditions are preventing young Italians from having children.

The question of family size and population fertility has been a global concern for decades, as for most nations it’s both the primary driving mechanism for economic growth, and the focus of social engineering strategies. The common view in Western so-called developed nations tends to be that larger families are far more of an economic burden than a benefit, and this misconception has now brought many nations to the brink of a demographic crisis, in which there simply aren’t enough new citizens coming into the fiscal system to sustain economies.

The UK is a case in point – we’ve been very successful at improving mortality and longevity, which has raised the numbers of elderly citizens drawing pensions and utilising services, but the decades since the 1968 Abortion Act, the widespread introduction of the contraceptive pill in 1974 and subsequent years of economic restraint have driven down UK birth rates to their lowest point since 1938. This is significant because the UK economy, like most national systems, is fundamentally a fixed annual amount that has to provide for all the services, developments and pressures that the country demands. Whilst it’s possible to tinker with the details, and to squeeze or expand by pennies in specific areas, what comes in each year through taxation is always going to be a reflection of what a country’s population is paying, which of itself is a sum of its population level.

When the UK stumbled its way through the 2008 banking crisis, warnings were mumbled about it causing a future pensions and general economic crisis, but few were prepared to be frank about how catastrophic that might could be. As we’re now starting to discover, the 2008 fiasco and subsequent mishandling of UK government finances has both stripped seniors of their desperately needed pension savings, and left at least the next two generations of our young citizens with an unimaginable financial burden to address. In fact, if the UK birth rates stay at present levels, or more likely reduces even further, legislators are only too well aware that we’re very close to a point where incoming taxation from younger people simply won’t cover even the most basic needs of the country. Hence the desperate attempts to grab pension savings , increase taxation and kick the pension age down the road.

Back in 2015 Chancellor George Osborne was certainly aware of this, when he announced in his summer budget that the government was going to cut tax credits and benefit to families with more than two children. This previously unimagined ‘two child policy’ had been championed by Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, who saw the £12bn welfare savings as a ‘mechanism to change social behaviour’. Whilst the changes would not impact the 870,000 families who already had three or more children, anyone bold, wealthy or foolish enough to have a third child after April 2017 would be caught by the change and would receive no benefits for their child.

Comparisons were made to China’s notorious one-child policy, but the UK Conservative government played to the old stereotype of the feckless poor who breed for benefits to justify its proposals. Such portrayals have been beloved by the media, as stories of large, unworking families drawing huge monthly benefits have always made for good copy and increased readership, but – as anyone who’s ever actually struggled to get any kind of benefits out of the UK system knows only too well – such stories are extremely rare. A far more common experience for hundreds of thousands of desperate people who fallen on hard times is that our entire benefits system is geared to non-payment and non-qualification, within a broken and horrendously over-complex structure of unnecessary administration and bureaucracy.

Our government actually knows only too well that it would be far cheaper and far more effective to give every single UK citizen the basic funds to live (known widely as Universal Basic Income) than to run the current, bloated, ineffective and costly benefits system.

This idea isn’t anything new – way back in the 1700s the English philosopher and political theorist Thomas Paine proposed that every citizen, on reaching adulthood, should be given an equal wage by the state, and it’s a concept that has continued to interest political and economic theorists to the present day. Just a few years ago four local authorities in Scotland – City of Edinburgh Council, Fife Council, Glasgow City Council and North Ayrshire Council conducted a Citizens’ Basic Income experiment and their subsequent 2020 feasibility report recommended that the scheme be expanded to give every adult in Scotland a guaranteed basic income of £4,800 per year, plus their existing housing, disability and state pension benefits.

To those attracted to the ‘feckless poor’ narrative such a proposal is anathema, but there are very sound reasons for ensuring that all citizens are cared for, and that their basic needs are met – after all, a healthy and stable society is invariably going to be a productive society, from which economic benefits consequentially flow.

In Rome this morning Pope Francis made exactly this point, as he warned of a “feeling of precariousness” and growing concerns of the young generations for an uncertain future, which wars, the pandemic, mass displacements and the climate crisis have contributed to accentuate.

He said that families “live in a social climate in which starting a family is turning into a titanic effort, rather than a shared value that everyone recognises and supports.

“Difficulty in finding a stable job, difficulty in keeping one, prohibitively expensive houses, sky-high rents and insufficient wages are real problems,” he said, sitting alongside Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who was undoubtedly thinking of the warning of her economy minister earlier this week that Italy’s GDP risks dropping 18 percentage points over the next two decades if the country’s current birth trend continues its downward slide.

“We cannot passively accept that so many young people struggle to realise their family dream and are forced to lower the bar of desire, settling for mediocre substitutes: making money, aiming for a career, travelling, jealously guarding leisure time,” the Pope added.

“The free market, without the necessary corrective measures, becomes savage and produces increasingly serious situations and inequalities.”

For too long the UK has accepted a political culture of free market economics and meritocracy where the rich are fully deserving of their success and the poor are fully deserving of their poverty. Such savage thinking is neither appropriate nor humanitarian, and is also pretty catastrophic at the level of basic fiscal policy.

We can only hope that UK legislators are think along similar lines to Pope Francis, though sadly there seems to be little indication that the present government – composed at it is of mainly extremely wealthy and privileged individuals – has any overwhelming sense of urgency when it comes to resolving the needs of the poor.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and political theologian