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EU Hopes Benefits Boost Birth Rates

Europeans are thinking twice — and sometimes three, four or five times — before having kids. But benefits that are the envy of parents elsewhere may be boosting birth rates in some countries, baby step by baby step.

Iceland leads Europe with a fertility rate of 2.03 children per woman in 2004, the most recent year for which Europe-wide figures were available from Eurostat, the EU's statistics service. Ireland, with a rate of 1.99, and mainland France, with a provisional rate of 1.90, are ranked second and third.

Nordic countries, including Norway and Finland, are also relatively fertile with rates of 1.81 and 1.80 in 2004. But overall, the figures are still worrying because, according to the EU's statistics service, a fertility rate of 2.1 is considered to be what it takes to replace a population in developed countries.

Women in eastern and southern Europe — areas that include many new EU states — have the fewest children. Slovenia ranks the lowest with a fertility rate of 1.22, followed closely by the Czech Republic and Poland, both with rates of 1.23, the EU says.

In an effort to encourage couples to have children, Austria, France and other European countries have beefed up their benefits for families with children.

In Austria, that includes monthly payouts of $547 for the youngest child until the age of 3, and additional monthly checks ranging from $132 to $192, depending on the age of offspring. Additionally, families are also eligible for a tax benefit of about $64 per month per child. Children also get free school books and don't have to pay for public transportation to and from school.

Per child, an Austrian woman can get up to 48 months of pension benefits and is guaranteed a maternity allowance two months before and after she gives birth — periods where she is not expected to show up at work. In some cases, parents also have the right to determine how many hours per week they want to work until their child reaches school age, according to a spokesman for the ministry.

In France, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin last September announced financial incentives for parents to have a third child.

The measure, which went into effect this month, awards $940 a month to parents who take one year's unpaid leave from work after the birth of a third child. That cash incentive will be implemented alongside an existing measure that allows parents to take up to three years of unpaid leave with smaller monthly payments $642.

But incentives still seem to fall short — especially when it comes to affordable child care.

A study released this spring in Austria by the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research found that the alpine country of roughly 8 million lacked 46,000 spots in nurseries, kindergartens and after school programs.

That doesn't bode well for working mothers who often struggle with the choice of career over kids.

"In Europe, many young people feel trapped by labor market prospects and by (concerns about) who will take care of their young children," said Hubert Krieger of the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions.

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