MOSCOW, May 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Babies are expensive everywhere, and Russia is no exception.
Thirty-three-year-old mother of three, Nelia, knows that only too well.
"Baby carriage: 20,000 [rubles, $742]; car seat: 7,000 [rubles]; changing table.... Even the most basic things end up costing a lot, a lot of money," she says.
Another mother, Svetlana, a 35-year-old resting in a Moscow park with her 1-year-old daughter, points to her daughter's shiny pink shoes. A good pair costs at least 800 rubles, she says.
Svetlana quit her job as a school art teacher after the birth of her second daughter one year ago. Her husband, a manager in a local tourist agency, earns enough to feed and clothe the whole family.
With careful budgeting, Svetlana says she spends between 12,000 rubles and 20,000 rubles monthly on her two children.
In Moscow, where the average income is around $700, having several children remains a luxury for many. Many Russian parents choose to limit themselves to one child simply because they cannot afford a second, let alone a third or a fourth.
That's bad news for Russia. Experts worry that by 2050, Russia's population will have fallen from 142 million to below 100 million. The most fertile group of women, those in their 20s, is also expected to decline sharply.
In his recent state-of-the-nation address, Putin effectively proposed a new national program to nudge up the birthrate. He offered to double state child benefits to 1,500 rubles monthly for the first child, and to 3,000 rubles for the second child.
Children studying art at Moscow's Pushkin Museum of Fine Art (RFE/RL)
Under the plan, which Putin urged parliament to finalize by the end of the year, mothers would be entitled to extra medical subsidies. The state would also pay women on maternity leave no less than 40 percent of what they used to earn.
In addition, Putin also said the government should give families at least 250,000 rubles ($9,280) in financial aid following the birth of a second child. This sum would not be paid in cash but in vouchers that parents could spend on accommodation, on children's education, or on their own pension.
But will such a program work?
Svetlana says she believes Putin's proposal will encourage young couples to produce a second child.
"Yes, I think it is encouraging, especially if you're hesitating to have a second child," she said. "It provides an extra incentive. What I like about it is that the money can be invested in education. Now everything is for a fee, it is only officially that education is free of charge."
Nelia, who has come to pick up her three children at a kindergarten in central Moscow, says she doubts the proposed measures will incite cash-strapped families to have more children. Her wish, she says, to have a large family was made possible only thanks to her husband's top executive job in a big Russian bank.
For Irina, who has a 3-year-old daughter, raising even one child is a financial struggle for her and her husband. The 32-year-old psychologist would like to have a second child, but she says the proposed measures don't go far enough.
"Housing problems are a restraining factor. If we had accommodation, yes. But the three of us share a 17-square-meter room. Material security and stability, of course, play a role, but the whole education system is also a problem. Children have to be picked up from the nursery school by 6 p.m.. I pick her [my daughter] up at 6 p.m. and she's the last one. So if the mother works, her working day must finish no later than 5 p.m.," she says.
The 250,000-ruble benefit Irina and her husband would receive if they had a second child would not be much help either in solving their housing problem. In an expensive city like Moscow, such a sum would buy them only a few square meters.