The government should do more to support the first and second child as family benefits hikes have concentrated on large families in recent years, with the most common family with one or two children receiving the least in the way of benefits, Mare Ainsaar, University of Tartu assistant professor of sociology and social policy told ERR.
The Family Benefits Act bill, currently serving as a source of tension for the government, would hike the benefit for the first and second child from the current €60 to €100 a month, while support for families with three to six children would rise from €300 to €700 a month. Families with seven and more children would get €900 instead of the current €400 a month.
Ainsaar told ERR that hiking family benefits is the right thing to do looking at price advance.
"Inflation is eating away at incomes, and calculations suggest the financial effect of child benefits is back where it was a decade ago. Support for children and families has fallen behind general development," she suggested.
Ainsaar added that support for the first and second child has particularly fallen behind the time as all recent family benefits hikes have been aimed at large families. While this has had a positive effect on decisions of whether to have children, the researcher recommends also supporting the first and second children as they are also part of the family.
"Families with many children make no distinction between the first, second or third. The first child allowance ends up benefiting all others," she explained. "It is definitely the most expensive instrument for the state budget as first children are most numerous, while their number is, unfortunately, dwindling. Without first children being born, there cannot be second, third or fourth ones."
Ainsaar said that Estonia should emulate Finland where child benefits are not seen as an instrument for the needy but rather as a child's income, a normal base need.
"We all have money. Employees receive a salary, pensioners pension. If we lose our job, we get unemployment benefits. But a normal, healthy child must have an allowance, just like a working person gets paid. They eat, grow and want to develop. They need school aids, education. All of it takes money these days," she explained.
Ainsaar added that parents work to raise children, which is an objective expense that comes with having children.
"And it is the same for everyone, rich or poor. In that sense, child benefits are not support but a child's income," she added.
Eesti Ekspress (link in Estonian) wrote on Monday that the single parent's benefit of €19.18 a month has remained unchanged for over 20 years. A representative of the Ministry of Social Affairs told the paper that if a mother has decided to have a child by herself, she should not expect additional support from the government.
Ainsaar said that the attitude likely follows efforts to have both parents contribute to raising children, including if one of them does not live with the child.
"The ministry probably wants to send the message that having kids comes with the obligation to take care of them. But because having more children works to the benefit of the entire country, including people who have no children, we should help all parents raise their children," she offered.
The sociologist said that while the single parent's benefit is laughably small, single parents aren't the worst off compared to others – an average family with one or two children is still the most disadvantaged.
Large family benefits deliver hike in number of third children
Tallinn University demographics professor Allan Puur said that looking at statistics, a link can be established between the large families' instrument and births.
"One simple way to notice the connection is to compare the situation before and after the reform. The instrument was introduced in the middle of 2017. If we compare three years before, 2014-2016, and three years after, 2018-2021, and look at the annual average number of third children, we see it has been higher in years following the reform," he said.
The annual average number of births has grown by around 25 percent since the reform. In absolute figures, the annual increase in number of third and consequent children has been 740.
Annual births of third and subsequent children were still up 21 percent or by 640 four years after the reform in 2021 to suggest the instrument is also having a longer-term effect, Puur said.
Asked about the recent family benefits bill, Puur said that supporting large families is a matter of political choice, while one reason could be that family benefits measures, in addition to boosting the number of births, also help iron out inequality and differences in subsistence associated with having children.
"If we consider that the ratio of breadwinners to mouths is the most unfavorable for major families, according to this logic, it makes sense to pay more attention to large families," he suggested, adding that politicians tend to forget about child benefits for long periods of time. The rates had remained unchanged for long years before 2017, to suggest that another reason for the bill currently in proceedings is updating support.
Data from Statistics Estonia suggests Estonia had 257,044 children of whom 2.7 percent lived in absolute and 15.5 percent in relative poverty in 2020.
While both the absolute and relative poverty rates for families with three or more children have gone down since 2020, the number of single parents living in relative poverty has grown by 10 percent.
Editor: Marcus Turovski