Gilbert on Family Size Decisions – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Gilbert on Family Size Decisions

In a recent article in the Globe and Mail (Toronto), Professor of Economics Geoffrey Gilbert was quoted discussing demographics that impact family size. Among the theories and factors that impact number of children a family has, he looks at the need to have children to help provide for families in agrarian societies or into old age: “In pre-industrial societies, children are valued for their labour and for the security they can provide to their parents in old age,” he is quoted.

He also addresses religion, culture, mortality rates and Green issues, as well as the impact a woman’s education level has on her desire to have children.

“When girls receive more education … the investment in their education only ‘pays off’ to its fullest when women obtain the jobs that their education has prepared them for,” he is quoted.

Gilbert has been a member of the faculty for more than 30 years. He earned his B.A. from Dartmouth College and his Ph.D. from John Hopkins University. His publication includes “Malthus: Critical Responses” (Routledge, 1998), “World Poverty: A Reference Handbook” (ABC-CLIO, 2004) and “World Population: A Reference Handbook” (ABC-CLIO, 2006).

The full article from the Globe and Mail follows.


Globe and Mail
“Driven to Procreate”

Susan Krashinsky • August 26, 2009

One of life’s most important decisions – whether to have children, and how many – can’t be boiled down to simple pros and cons. Demographers have long struggled to understand how people decide on the size of their family. These are some of the prevailing theories:

Baby blanket, security blanket
Developing countries with agriculture-based economies have higher fertility rates since families need more sets of hands to till the soil. And with no pensions, kids are an essential support for the elderly. “In pre-industrial societies, children are valued for their labour and for the security they can provide to their parents in old age,” said Geoffrey Gilbert, a professor of economics at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. But he also pointed out that birth control is an issue. If it’s inaccessible or too expensive, people may not have much say in the size of their families.

Cost/benefit analysis
The classic theory is that as people’s income rises, they have fewer kids. With women in the work force, families must calculate lost wages (if one partner stays home) or the cost of daycare (if both remain at work). “A hundred years ago, women earned very little money working in the market. So it didn’t cost much for a family to have another child,” said Professor Bryan Caplan, who teaches family economics at George Mason University in Virginia.

You’ve come a long way, baby
The lowest fertility rates tend to be among women with post-secondary educations, Prof. Gilbert said, while those who never finished high school tend to have more kids. “When girls receive more education … the investment in their education only ‘pays off’ to its fullest when women obtain the jobs that their education has prepared them for,” Prof. Gilbert said.

Quality v. quantity
Over time, it’s become more important in the culture of developed nations for parents to make big investments to make their kids successful, Prof. Caplan said. “It may well be … that’s why they’re keeping their families small,” he said. Parents may be getting richer, but all those ergonomic strollers, mental-stimulation games and private violin lessons also mean kids are expensive.

Be fruitful
For religious people, the cost equation of children is less important than the moral imperative to build a family, Prof. Gilbert said. “People in these communities often have larger – in some cases much larger – families than more secular couples.”

Keeping up with the Joneses
Culture also plays a role. First-generation immigrants tend to have higher fertility rates than the national average. But once families settle into a country, the number of kids born there often conforms to the standard they see around them, Prof. Gilbert said. If the neighbours all have one or two kids, it’s less appealing to be the one family on the block with eight.

Hedging your bets
In countries with higher infant-mortality rates, it makes sense to have more kids to ensure some survive. “This is not something most people in the developed world have to worry about,” Prof. Gilbert said. “If they want to see two children reach adulthood, they have two children.”

Greening your family
You shun aerosol cans and plastic bags, so why not think of the earth when planning your family? The green case for smaller families has been around since Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 best-seller The Population Bomb cautioned against looming overpopulation. “‘Think globally, act locally’ could be translated to ‘No more than two children per couple,'” Prof. Gilbert said.