No Babies?

As the birthrate in European countries drops well below the “replacement rate” — that is, an average of 2.1 children born to every woman — the declining population will first be felt in the playgrounds.

When Falivena took office in 2002 for his second stint as mayor, two numbers caught his attention. Four: that was how many babies were born in the town the year before. And five: the number of children enrolled in first grade at the school, never mind that the school served two additional communities as well. “I knew what was my first job, to try to save the school,” Falivena told me. “Because a village that does not have a school is a dead village.” He racked his brain and came up with a desperate idea: pay women to have babies. And not just a token amount, either; in 2003 Falivena let it be known he would pay 10,000 euros (about $15,000) for every woman — local or immigrant, married or single — who would give birth to and rear a child in the village.

The “baby bonus,” as he calls it, is structured to root new citizens in the town: a mother gets 1,500 euros when her baby is born, then a 1,500-euro payment on each of the child’s first four birthdays and a final 2,500 euros the day the child enrolls in first grade. Falivena has a publicist’s instincts, and he said he hoped the plan would attract media attention. It did, generating news across Italy and as far away as Australia.

Finally, as we loitered in front of a mustard-colored building up the street from the town’s empty main square, a car came by. Falivena — a small, muscular man in a polo shirt, with gray hair and a deeply creased, tanned face — flagged it down, for the young woman behind the wheel, Salvia Daniela, was one of the very people he was looking for. They exchanged a few words, and we followed Daniela back to her apartment to meet her family. Daniela, who is 31, and her 36-year-old husband, Gerardo Grande, have two children: Pasquale, 10, and Gaia, who is 5 and was one of the first “baby bonus” babies. Daniela and Grande say they are committed to being a traditional family, but it isn’t easy. Grande works for a development company and manages a bar in the evenings so that his wife can devote herself to the home. Their apartment, though cheery (with lots of enlarged photos of the kids), is cramped. “The baby bonus helped us,” Grande told me. He added, gesturing toward Falivena, “We think this man is a great mayor.”