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What Happened When This Italian Province Invested in Babies


In a municipal building in the heart of the alpine city of Bolzano, Stefano Baldo clocked out of work early for his breastfeeding break.

“It’s clear I don’t breastfeed,” Mr. Baldo, a 38-year-old transportation administrator, said in his office decorated with pictures of his wife and six children. But with his wife home with a newborn, one of the parents was entitled by law to take the time, and he needed to pick up the kids. “It’s very convenient.”

Full houses have increasingly become history in Italy, which has one of the lowest birthrates in Europe and where Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, as well as Pope Francis, have warned that Italians are in danger of disappearing. But the Alto Adige-South Tyrol area and its capital, Bolzano, more than any other part of the country, bucked the trend and emerged as a parallel procreation universe for Italy, with its birthrate holding steady over decades.

The reason, experts say, is that the provincial government has over time developed a thick network of family-friendly benefits, going far beyond the one-off bonuses for babies that the national government offers.

Parents enjoy discounted nursery schools, baby products, groceries, health care, energy bills, transportation, after-school activities and summer camps. The province supplements national allocations for children with hundreds of euros more per child and vaunts child-care programs, including one that certifies educators to turn their apartments into small nurseries.

All of that, experts say, helps free up women to work, which is vital for the economy. As in France and some Scandinavian countries, it also shows that a policy of offering affordable day-care services has the power to steer Italy from the impending demographic cliff as the birthrate falls.

“If we don’t invest money in families, there is no future for any of us,” said Waltraud Deeg, a former province council member and an architect of some of its family policies. “The family is a long-term project, so policies need to be long term, too.”

That approach not only distinguishes the area around Bolzano, it also stands out in Italy in other important ways that may make its example hard to replicate.

For a good chunk of its history, the Alto Adige area belonged to the assorted empires of Austria, which called it South Tyrol, until Italy annexed it in the early 1900s. It retains a measure of independence over its tax euros and financial decisions, and culturally, it can feel like another, more Austrian world than the rest of Italy. Most people still speak German and are more likely to tuck into bread dumplings than a bowl of pasta.

The area also has the highest income per resident in Italy, according to ISTAT, the country’s statistics agency.

Outside his office, Mr. Baldo walked past a blue wreath marking the arrival of a co-worker’s first grandchild and exited the building through a lobby filled with fliers advertising “Welcome Baby” backpacks loaded with tips for new parents and picture books.

He hopped on his scooter and arrived at the nursery school to pick up his 5- and 4-year-old sons. “Oh, you want both of them?” the preschool teacher joked. “But let me hide one under my apron.”

The boys strapped on their Bolzano-issued “Welcome Baby” backpacks and walked across the street with their father to pick up their little brother at another nursery for younger children. The four then crossed the street to their rent-stabilized apartment, where Mr. Baldo’s wife, Tiziana Balzamá, 39, greeted them with an infant in her arms.

Experts say the province’s sustained and reliable financial commitment to families matter more than the short-term baby bonuses that Italy’s unstable national governments have favored for decades.

“The difference is that it has a constant investment, over the years, unlike most national policies that are one-offs,” said Agnese Vitali, a demographer at the University of Trento. “Nobody plans to have children based on one-off policies.”

The Baldo family said provincial support meant everything to them. As a cake rose in the oven, Ruben, 2, played a children’s song, while his brothers Beniamino, 5, and Gioele, 4, showed off the plastic vegetables in their play kitchen. Their parents sat next to a toy cash register and explained that, like every parent in the province, they received 200 euros a month for each of their six children until they turned 3.

That was on top of the monthly check for 1,900 euros, or about $2,000, they received from the national government for their children.

Their Family + card, available to all families with three or more children, entitled them to 20 percent off many supplies around the city and was linked to the local Despar supermarket for additional discounts. Ms. Balzamá said she also made use of savings on public transportation.

When the family-friendly subsidies started in the 1980s, the province also imported the idea of the Tagesmutter, or childminder, day-care system from East Germany. Italians call it Casa Bimbo. Under the system, the province certifies, registers and supports local teachers who turn their homes into nurseries. It is especially popular in rural areas.

“They bet on a network of widespread micronurseries,” said Mariangela Franch, an economics professor at the University of Trento.

Ms. Balzamá, who worked in classrooms around the province before her first son was born, said she had looked into a yearlong course to become a Tagesmutter but concluded that for now it made more financial sense to stay home.

“It was my choice to say that I will wait to go back to work,” she said.

For mothers who do wish to return to work — like her sister, a nurse, with four children of her own — Ms. Balzamá said the province also offered inexpensive public nursery schools.

Some experts say the province’s attitude toward family benefits is rooted in the desire of a minority culture in a historically disputed area to keep alive a strong identity by encouraging people to have more children. That cultural factor becomes clearer when looking across the border to Trentino, the other — and more culturally Italian — part of the larger region.

Trentino has also invested heavily in child care — a strategy that predates and in some cases outstrips its neighbor. Its birthrate has nevertheless plunged to 1.36 children per woman, much lower than Alto Adige-South Tyrol’s and much closer to the dismal national average.

“The local culture also plays an important role,” said Alessandro Rosina, a prominent Italian demographer. “And that is hard to export.”

Mr. Baldo, who does not speak German, says he is as Italian as anyone. He said his Catholic faith and affection for the chaos of big families — his wife is one of eight children — motivated the couple to have children, a decision enabled by provincial policies.

At 4 p.m., he rushed out to pick up his other two sons from school in his white van. He said he had ordered a new one, with nine seats, and that anything bigger would require a special license.

He waved to the volunteer retirees in fluorescent green vests who made up what the province called “grandparent traffic cops.” In addition to acting as crossing guards, he explained, they also marched children to school in the morning in a program called “the walking bus.”

Mr. Baldo’s older boys — Raffaele, 10, and Elia, 8 — piled into the van, and they all rode home. Their grandmother Renata Canali, 71, had stopped by and demanded that her daughter-in-law “give me my grandson.”

“Ciao, ciao, ciao,” she said to the infant, Giona, 6 months old. “He’s as beautiful as the sun.” Some of the boys drew or danced, while the others got ready for dinner, showers or soccer practice.

“Many of our friends have one or two children because they want to live their lives. But here if they wanted, they have help,” Ms. Balzamà said. “We have a friend in Rome who has four kids. They pay a ton for help.”



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