Fewer Kids? Blame the French

Washington Free Beacon | 6/19/2019 | Charles Fain Lehman
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BY: Charles Fain Lehman

The spread of French cultural values can explain the sustained drop in fertility over the past two centuries, a new paper published Monday argues.

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"Fertility and Modernity," the joint work of economists Enrico Spolaore and Romain Wacziarg, is the latest contribution to a debate over how important culture, as opposed to economics, explains how many kids people choose to have. Using a carefully assembled dataset, the pair of authors make a persuasive case that one is at least as important as the other, and changing cultural norms may be a necessary condition for changing economic practices.

At its heart, the new paper is about the "fertility transition"—the sudden drop, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the number of children each woman had. "Prior to the transition, [European and American] women bore as many as eight children each," a review from the Journal of Economic Literature notes. "Today, many women have no children at all."

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The fertility transition represents not just a decline in the number of kids, but also a change in how people think about childrearing. Historically, the only effective method of controlling the number of children one has was abstinence. But, in part aided by the rise of tools for birth control—including the diaphragm, cervical cap, and eventually the pill—in the 19th and 20th centuries families began to make conscious choices about the number of kids they wanted. As the new paper puts it, "the ideal to ‘marry, have a couple of kids, and stop,' is a modern innovation."

Technological origins notwithstanding, there is a deep debate within the literature about why the fertility transition happened, and more specifically whether people's choice to have fewer kids is a product of economic factors versus cultural ones. In the former camp are those who argue that the...
(Excerpt) Read more at: Washington Free Beacon
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