Fertility Fall Myths

In the latest JEL, Tim Guinnane does a nice job debunking misconceptions about the great fertility fall associated with the industrial revolution. For example, “The decline in French fertility began in the late eighteenth century,” and fertility declines were not uniform across Europe:

Mortality decline doesn’t work as an explanation for fertility declines:

Fertility in the United States declined for decades before any noticeable decline in mortality.

Nor does new contraception tech:

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, withdrawal and abstinence remained the primary approaches used by married couples. Since these technologies had been available, essentially, throughout human history, it is unlikely that the condom and similar new methods played a strong role in the fertility transition. … Methods available even prior to the fertility transition were sufficient to produce voluntary reductions of the magnitude we observe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Nor do child labor laws:

Most [child-labor] measures either did not apply to agricultural work, or did so in a more relaxed way. … German restrictions did not successfully limit the role of children in production at home, which remained important throughout the nineteenth century. And in every case, the restrictions’ impact would depend both on enforcement measures and parents’ desire to evade them. Finally, if child-labor restrictions were introduced when they were mostly irrelevant, …

Nor do new social insurance programs:

Economic ties between parents and children varied dramatically across the societies in question before the fertility transition. … At the other extreme, rural laborers’ children in England would, from at least the early-modern period, leave home for good in their early to mid teens. … social-insurance systems introduced at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were usually replacing earlier schemes. Thus there is no clear “before.” … The broad patterns also do not make it likely that social insurance alone is central to the story. The two forerunners, France and the United States, were laggards in developing social insurance.

Still in the running, he thinks, are increases in urbanization, female employment, and gains to schooling:

Several studies document the existence of fertility control among small groups as early as the seventeenth century. These “forerunners” were usually urban elites or members of minority groups such as Jews. More generally, research based on either sub-national aggregates or micro data often find earlier fertility declines than in national data. The Princeton studies report earlier fertility declines in cities, for example. … Most studies find that urban fertility was lower than rural fertility in the nineteenth century, … Once the fertility transition began, fertility usually fell first in urban areas, with rural areas then catching up. …

Cross-sectional regressions for U.S. states in 1840 show that fertility is negatively correlated with measures of nonfarm labor-market opportunities. Once such proxies are introduced, land prices have no influence on fertility. … Crafts … finds a consistent, negative correlation between women’s [1911] local labor-force opportunities and marital fertility. …

Goldin and … Katz … find that the return to an additional year of [1915 Iowa] high school or college then was, for males, on the order of 11–12 percent. Mitch estimates the present value of acquiring literacy in Victorian Britain for a representative child. The present value of the cost of acquiring literacy would be about £4. At a wage premium of 5 shillings per week for literacy, the present value of the higher wages for a 35-year work life would be over £200.

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  • “Morality decline doesn’t work as an explanation for fertility declines”
    I know you meant “mortality”, but from a pro-natalist perspective perhaps avoiding having kids is immoral. Perhaps comparable to ending a life.

  • How does real incomes work as an explanation? The wealth of a country seem at least superficially connected.

  • adrian

    I thought fertility declines were mostly a result of the overall rise in the cost of having a child.

  • David Gonzales

    The last section about returns to education is less clear to me. I believe the decline in fertility is the result of the prospective parents’ education. Perhaps looking at Europe/America literacy rates (and higher education rates) vs. Fertility would reveal this connection. Is such data available for the early 18th century? Could be interesting.

  • Foster

    We have the problem of which variables are controllable.

    For instance, it may be that education level is the strongest driver but that indoctrination contributes to education level (by, for instance, showing young women movie after movie about the evils of having children before establishing themselves in a career).

  • Foster

    Regarding the education suppression of female fertility, here is an interesting paper from India seeming to indicate that it may be less education level than prospect of social advancement via education that suppresses female fertility in that country. This, combined with the extraordinarily high level of female education in Utah—a state with the highest female fertility rate in the US—may be evidence against the education hypothesis:

    Returning a Favor: Reciprocity Between Female Education and Fertility in India

    P. N. Mari BhatCorresponding Author Contact Information
    Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, India
    Accepted 26 March 2002. Available online 4 September 2002.


    In this paper, an attempt has been made to show that while at the initial stages of demographic transition it is the education of females that exerts significant negative effect on fertility, as the transition progresses, this effect tends to weaken, and the dominant pattern changes to one wherein it is the fertility level that exerts significant negative influence on educational attainment of children, especially of girls. By using crosstabular data from censuses and surveys, it is shown that much of the recent reduction in fertility and the rise in contraceptive levels in India has come, not from more women becoming literate over time, but from the changes in the reproductive behavior of illiterate women themselves. Further, using micro-level data from a national survey, it is shown that illiterate parents, while regulating their fertility, send more of their children to school. The first-born daughter appears to be the greatest beneficiary of the changing emphasis on quality over quantity in reproductive outcomes, as she is released from the burden of attending to younger siblings.

  • Foster

    The general argument explaining “the demographic transition” is female education or economic development or both.

    While these may be enabling conditions of the demographic transition, the critical component is illustrated by Utah, where both economic development and female education have proceeded with far less impact on total fertility rates. Utah routinely competes with Alaska for the highest total fertility rate within the US.

    So the two big exceptions to the decline of total fertility rates is exemplified in the United States by Utah and Alaska. These two States correspond to the ancient dichotomy between socially imposed monogamy and ecologically imposed monogamy respectively. Utah has socially imposed male authority (via Mormonism which posits a father as priest to his family) and Alaska has ecologically imposed male authority. It is the latter that may be more “natural” and thus perhaps why abandonment of the pursuit of frontiers may be so destructive to fertility. By frontiers I’m referring to physical, not political, frontiers.

    It may be a result of the loss of ecologically imposed patriarchy and the decline of socially imposed patriarchy (with feminism, social changes, etc.) that the Mormons have proven is successful in maintaining fertility in the face of female education and economic development.

    • David Gonzales

      Foster: It seems being Mormon is a significant factor which contributes to higher fertility. In addition, peer pressure effect, whereby parents emulate their peers (at least their more successful peers) is also a very plausible effect. These would explain the Utah anomaly. I could add economic status as another plausible influencing variable.
      The question is what are the relative strengths of these effects. The increase of one of the negative influences or the decrease of one of the positive influences can then be declared the Cause of the demographic transition.

      • awc

        Utah’s fertility is further exaggerated by the fact that many non-Mormons are either Catholics or Evangelical Protestants. All told, 75% of the state’s population identifies with these three religious groups, all of whom discourage the use of contraceptives.

  • Will

    The much-lauded liberation of female “choice” — choice in sexual partners, reproductive choice, career choice, “lifestyle” choice, choice of social support services from the government — over the last generation is now a fixture of Western civilization.

    The moral force behind this female empowerment is the extent to which it represents returning to individual females their sovereignty.

    What about male individual sovereignty?

    Under natural law the ultimate power — the power that shapes the future — of female individual sovereignty is the choice of which genes make it into the next generation and that power is exercised through birth.

    Under natural law the ultimate power of male individual sovereignty is the choice of that which is to be killed in single combat.

    Civilization is founded on a meta-stable “deal” in which females give up their individual sovereignty to their mates and their mates give up their individual sovereignty to the State. If, in this scenario, you liberate only one sex, not only does civilization collapse, but until it does, the circumstances are unbearable to the sex not liberated.

    In Western civilization there is no going back to the age of females giving up their individual sovereignty to their mates, so Western civilization is ending and we are left with two choices:

    Figure out how to legitimize formal individual combat to the death between males, or adopt Islam.

    That’s a true dilemma.

  • Will

    Civilization is built on the pretense that husbands are alpha males so that they don’t revolt against those in positions of authority. The 60s exploded that pretense leaving the glass ceiling protecting those positions of authority as the real alpha males surrounding themselves by de facto harems. It has take decades, but the consequences are now coming home to roost in the form of high fertility rates among patriarchal immigrant cultures. Islam is the the likely beneficiary since it dispenses with the hypocrisy surrounding de facto harems and formally sanctions harem sizes limited to a maximum of 4 females.

    No one wants to even consider what the counterpart to female liberation might be. But since its our job to point out that which no one wants to consider, consider this: A female’s godhood is exercised when she chooses which genes will pass through her to the next generation. A male’s godhood is exercised when he chooses which other male he will meet in a natural duel to prevent his genes from passing into the next generation — or die trying.

    If males are liberated, the glass ceiling would be shattered along with all positions of authority.

  • Will

    Human ecology is as fragile as natural ecology. Admonishment doesn’t really matter when the cause of an ecological disaster is grounded in something like biophysics and those doing the admonishing have no clue as to the causal structure they are trying to affect. Here’s a clue: In nature, males and females have two respective powers: To destroy and to preserve. People think that civilization is founded on control of destruction and seem to forget that civilization also depends on controlling female power to preserve. With the return to females of choice, hence their power, something equivalent must be done for males, such as enforcing natural duels to the death (natural meaning just putting the two disputants out in the wilderness with one to return). Of course, no one can face that this is the logical consequence of female liberation, so civilization slowly transforms into something unrecognizable except, perhaps, to the eusocial insects and their negation of sex.

    Feminism is a civilizing influence as is anything that neutralizes sex. Think about two males of just about any species in nature. Agreed, it is not common for there to be gang fights (aka warfare) but the common theme of natural duel is simply not compatible with maintaining a social organism in which the appeal of last resort in dispute processing is words. Once you remove this essential expression of masculinity, as civilizations always tend to do, you are left with what our lecturer calls “the paradox”. It really is no paradox at all. The simple fact is that you have removed the essence of masculinity. Most civilizations think they can get away with compensating for this “paradox” by similarly “castrating” females through institutions like state or religion sponsored prostitution called “marriage”. That “works” for a while — maybe thousands of years, but eventually females will come to question this arrangement for very natural reasons. But by the time that has happened, everyone has forgotten that civilization also suppressed the natural duel! So things go _really_ haywire and uncontrollably so as natural forces disrupt the culture starting in the limbic systems of virtually every citizen. You can only commodify this discontent and sell it back to us on DVD in the form of mano-a-mano fights at the climax of the movie so much. Something must give. That something is sex itself. And here we have, just in time, genetic engineering and cloning.

  • In memetics the paradox of the demographic transition – which involves increased resource availability resulting in fewer children – is explained by invoking a greater number of memetic infections – which results in host reproductive resources being diverted into meme reproduction – rather than gene reproduction. Japan offers an extreme example of this. The implementation details may well involve hyper-stimululation of the K-side of the r-K selection axis. Boyd and Richerson cover essentially this hypothesis in their book “Not By Genes Alone”.

    • Anonymous

      which results in host reproductive resources being diverted into meme reproduction

      Often to the host’s great pleasure, I might add. I still hope for full VR sex in my life time.

  • cristina

    damn. @most of these comments.
    Being at home all day taking care of kids is mind-numbing. Waiting to reproduce (or adopt or whatever ends up happening) while I become self sufficient and learn a trade that wil let me live my life without wanting to kill myself due to boredom and a feeling of being a waste of space seems pretty logical.

    I live with my sister. She stays home all day and takes care of her kid. I go to work. I’m not the one on antidepressants.

    Plus, most of my male friends wouldn’t date a woman what is unemployed.

    ok, continue talking about economics. carry on.

  • martinfowles

    The population of the US has not decreased, nor that of any of the other countries supposedly undergoing the “demographic transition”. The “demographic transition” is nothing but the replacement of some population by others — red in tooth and claw.

    The modern critique of Ricardo’s Iron Law of Wages ignores the ground truth of the so-called “demographic transition” is nothing more than replacement of the earlier developing races by the later developing races. This is because — in the context of the open borders/global labor arbitrage theocracy combined with birth control technology — the definition of “subsistence wages” no longer includes the high cost of child rearing in more developed nations. The demographic collapse of earlier developing races is not having the upward pressure on wages among those races that modern economists predict.

    Richardo invoked the distinction between “natural price” and “market price” of labor primarily to argue that a continually expanding economy could continually drive the market demand for labor high enough that the market price would sustainably exceed the natural price. Moreover he invokes decadance among laborers as driving the perceived subsistence price higher and higher. This demoralization of labor continues today in the form of comments that today’s middle class lives like the kings of old. The reality is that men must compete for reproduction among a mating market driven by fertile women, and that in societies that place value on women, mating market demands by fertile women (primarily childless fertile women) is the foundation of the iron law of wages in the modern society. Add females to the labor market with demands for equal wages, as well as birth control, and you have an explosive brew.

  • martinfowles

    It really is basic economics:

    The iron law of wages states that in an international labor market wages will fall to the cost of labor’s subsistence. The problem is that the definition of “subsistence” has changed due to the advent of birth control and feminism. “Subsistence” used to, by implication, include reproduction — so your labor costs simply could not decrease below what it cost to obtain a fertile female and keep her happy with her circumstances. With feminism and birth control, the demand for fertile women has gone up — not as reproducers, but as employees. This at the same time land prices, hence home prices, have gone through the roof. This guts the affordability of children for all but those rich enough, or sexist enough (say, Islamics, orthodox Jews, Mexicans, Hindus and some evangelicals) to be able to afford to keep a woman at home and raise the children.

    The iron law of wages is now destroying the population.

  • Michael Wengler

    If the low-fertility groups are homogeoneously low-fertility, then indeed that it is it for those groups (unless something changes). HOWEVER, if the low-fertility groups consist of winners with fertility above replacement and losers with fertility below replacement, and winning and losing is mediated through some genes, then after a while winners outnumber losers, the low-fertility associated with the group changes to higher-fertility, and what we see is evolution in action.

    I thought of this when contemplating myself with 3 children, in a north county sandy eggo community of people with 2, 3 or 4 children mostly. It doesn’t FEEL like I am part of a low-fertility loser culture. Perhaps I am not for the reasons above.

    It could be the same throughout Europe. Have researchers looked for anything like this?

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