China is one of world’s most expensive places to raise children, report finds

China is one of the most expensive places in the world to raise a child in relative terms, a new report says, with the disproportionate impact on women driving the country’s precipitously low fertility rate as it grapples with a demographic crisis.

The study, released by the China-based YuWa Population Research Institute, found the average nationwide cost of raising a child from birth to age 17 was about $74,800 (A$112,000) — rising to more than $94,500 (A$143,000) to support a child through a bachelor’s degree.

The cost of raising a child to age 18 in China is 6.3 times higher than the country’s GDP per capita, the report said — a ratio second only to its East Asian neighbor South Korea, which has the world’s lowest fertility rate and where the cost of child-rearing is 7.79 times GDP per capita.

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In comparison, the report said the cost of raising a child is just 2.08 times the GDP per capita in Australia, 2.24 times in France, 4.11 times in the US, and 4.26 times in Japan — another East Asian country that has long struggled with a rapidly ageing population and declining birth rate.

“Due to reasons such as the high cost of childbearing and the difficulty for women to balance family and work, the Chinese people’s willingness to have children is almost the lowest in the world,” the report said.

“It is no exaggeration to describe the current population situation as a collapse in the birth population.”

China’s population has shrunk for the past two years, with 2023 marking the lowest birth rate since the founding of Communist China in 1949. Last year, China was surpassed by India as the world’s most populous country.

The demographic crisis threatens significant impact for the world’s second-largest economy and has deepened recently despite authorities’ efforts to reverse the trend following decades of restrictive birth policies.

The government has relaxed its limit on the number of children allowed per couple, launched national campaigns encouraging families to have more children, and offered financial sweeteners yet little has changed.

That is partially because, for many women, the sacrifice just isn’t worth the payoff, the YuWa report said.

Women taking maternity leave may face “unfair treatment” at work such as being transferred to other teams, taking a pay cut, or missing out on promotion opportunities, the report said.

It added that if the costs of maternity leave are entirely borne by companies without government assistance, employers may avoid recruiting women of childbearing age — something that is already widely seen in China, with reports of women being asked about family planning during job interviews, or being passed over for roles even if they don’t plan to have children.

And while some women stop working entirely while raising their children, it makes returning to the workforce incredibly difficult. Women who have children may see a 12 per cent to 17 per cent drop in their wages, the report said, citing research from multiple papers.

These sacrifices may have been more commonplace in past decades, but Chinese women are more educated and economically independent than ever, and now outnumber men in higher education programs.

With so many gains made recently, women are increasingly prioritising their careers and self-development over traditional mileposts such as marriage and childbirth, experts have previously said.

Then there are the costs in time, labour and money for raising a child.

Research shows women in China are primarily responsible for household tasks such as cooking, cleaning and shopping — as well as childcare, including the school run, help with homework and tutoring.

Citing a 2018 paper, the report said this means women lose nearly five hours daily of leisure and paid work time — with almost all those hours devoted to housework instead.

While fathers lose some leisure time too, their paid work hours don’t change significantly and their careers aren’t significantly impacted, the YuWa report said.

“Because the current social environment in China is not conducive to women’s childbirth, the time cost and opportunity cost for women to have children are too high,” the report said.

“Some women have to give up having children in exchange for the opportunity to succeed in their careers.”

China’s economy grew 5.2 per cent in 2023, slightly better than an official target set by Beijing. But the country is facing myriad challenges, including a record property downturn, surging youth unemployment, deflationary pressure, rising corporate defaults and mounting financial stress at local governments.

The report warned the falling birthrate could deeply impact economic growth, people’s overall happiness and China’s global standing.

The authors urged national policies to reduce the cost of childbirth “as soon as possible” — such as cash, tax and housing subsidies, equal maternity and paternity leave, protecting the reproductive rights of single women, and educational reform.

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