Thursday, August 30, 2018

Why low income households have more children

On social media lately, I’ve been reading this sentiment that people who are poor shouldn’t have so many children. The apparent reasoning is that if you can’t afford to bring children up properly, you shouldn’t have them.

This attitude is not just paternalistic and condescending, it also ignores the economic incentives facing the poor.

There are, I think, two main reasons for the poor having more children:

  1. There’s the biological imperative of perpetuating one’s genetic heritage. This affects all income levels, but is probably more acute at lower income levels, as healthcare is less readily accessible and less affordable. As inroads have been made against child mortality, this has become gradually less important over the decades (with a corresponding decrease in fertility), but cannot be discarded entirely. Given that mortality is higher for children from poor families (and life expectancy lower), having more children is one way to mitigate the risk.
  2. For the poor, children are effectively their retirement plan. Unlike upper and middle income households, poor households lack the capacity to save for the future. Against the day when one can no longer work, children are the main source of support. The more children one has, the more likely they will be able to provide for you, even if individually they might, through lack of investment in their upbringing, be poor themselves. Paradoxically, that inability to invest in each child is in itself a strong motive to have more children, as this spreads the burden of caring for ageing parents more broadly and makes it less onerous.

More children are effectively a perfectly rational, risk-diversification strategy of the poor against a cruel uncaring world.

Contrast that with households with higher income capacity, who have their own assets or savings, and thus have the luxury of investing in the health and future of their children, and can worry more about quality over quantity.

Given the above, the most appropriate policy response here shouldn’t be family planning for the poor, or scoldings from their “betters”; it should be the provision of a publicly financed universal healthcare and pension system. This would address both the concerns outlined above, and should reduce the socio-economic incentives the poor face.

[Disclosure: At this point, I should note that I am potentially biased with respect to that policy recommendation, given where I work. You have been warned]


  1. Have you considered the fact that the economy today is vastly different than what it was decades ago?

    You can't just send the kids to till the farm or tend to the chickens, especially in urban areas.

    If family-planning isn't the appropriate policy response, then how free basic education to ensure they can survive in the modern world?

  2. I think religion is also a factor. The less educated/rural folks have probably been indoctrinated that contraceptive is wrong plus they probably don't have access to contraceptives.

    1. Within Malaysia.. Islam encourage family planning. So thats not the issue in Malaysia. Hisham's assessment is spot on.

  3. Ha ha, I understand the most (by far) effective way to reduce fertility is to raise women's education level. So anyone seriously concerned about fertility rates among the poor ought to focus their efforts on raising female education levels (and empowering women generally). Haranguing the poor won't achieve anything concrete.

    I would also discourage, even prohibit, marriage for girls less than (say) 18 years old. I am not sure about the empirical connections, but I suspect fertility falls with the age of the girls/woman when marrying.

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  5. I believe it has more to do with education level, on average, the less educated the family, the more babies they have, one of the reason is they have simple mind, live a simple life, doesn't demand much and etc.

    whereas the more educated wants to have access to entertainment, more worried about their financial status that will eventually effect the child's education and etc. but this doesn't mean billionaire will make babies like no tomorrow, they too want less responsibility such as children.

    at the end of the day, if you want a population boom, have a less educated society.

  6. Some people feel they want to have more babies and some feel they want to have less babies...that's human nature I guess. And I believe it all contributes to a balanced world population and a population number that makes the world works.

    Since statistically it points out to the lower income group that have more babies than others, it also brings out the glaring fact that these group have inadequate access to healthcare and education to make their family better.

    So in my opinion policy focus should be on improving the healthcare and education of these group in particular the babies themselves. Whether they continue to have more babies or less, or to stop them from having more babies should not be the concern.

  7. I might think that malay people always said "banyak anak murah rezeki"

  8. If this is the case, then the development of the educational system in Malaysia better developed around these dynamics i.e. the doers are here, better get them to do something productive for the economy.

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