Philippine economists and government planners have long recognized the close correlation, in a developing-country setting, between rapid population growth and slow economic growth. They have long seen how a population growth rate exceeding 2 percent per annum has prevented the Philippine economy from taking off into rapid and sustainable growth.
Up until now they have limited their population-growth-must-slow-down proselytizing to empowering Filipino couples to plan the extent and timing of the growth of their families. Empowerment meant giving them access to government resources and facilities—especially counseling services—related to the prevention of conception. Victory for the managing-population-growth forces was achieved with the passage in 2012, after a bruising battle with the Catholic Church and conservative groups, of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012.
Apart from saying that the average family size of eight people—parents and six children—was way too high, this country’s leaders have been hesitant to state a number that in their minds represented a desirable objective for family-size limitation. This has changed. A number has not been indicated, and the indicator has been no one less than President Rodrigo Duterte himself.
In the course of the electoral campaign then-candidate Rodrigo Duterte said that, because of their economic circumstances, poor Filipino couples should have no more than three children. With more than that number of children, they would have difficulty breaking out of poverty, he said.
Duterte is to be commended for putting a name to the problem: having many children. He has rushed in where angels have feared to tread. With three children or less, you have a fair chance to break out of poverty; with more than three children, you likely will live a hand-to-mouth existence and remain poor all your lives. That, in effect, was the message that the new Chief Executive delivered to this country’s couples.
Unfortunately, because this country is a democracy and the right to decide a family’s size is one of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, suggesting that Filipino couples should have a maximum of three children is all that Duterte can do as the nation’s No. 1 official. And ponder is all that Congress can do; it cannot pass legislation regulating the private lives of Filipino couples.
In making his suggestion about Filipino couples’ limiting the number of their offspring to three, Rodrigo Duterte was doubtless influenced by the policymaking and experience of totalitarian and near-dictatorial governments like those of China and Singapore. Whereas many demographic planners believe that the ideal situation is one where parents seek simply to replace themselves—i.e., have two children—China and Singapore, have long maintained one and two, respectively, as the maximum allowable number of children per couple.
Given the democratic character of this country’s government, the only thing that Rodrigo Duterte’s administration can do to make his maximum-of-three-children suggestion effective is to provide a further incentive for Filipino couples to limit their procreative activity to that number of children. Fiscal incentives tend to work best. In the 1970s the Department of Finance set a limit of four to the number of dependents claimable by individual taxpayers in their income tax returns.
Economically, President Duterte’s maximum-three-children suggestion is excellent. Politically, however, it is a non-starter. The religious community, it goes without saying, would be apoplectic over any such government action.
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