Bryan Caplan  

Sacerdote, Feyrer, Kids, and Gender Conflict

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Sacerdote and Feyrer have an intriguing new paper on fertility. Background: Some rich countries - including Japan, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Greece - have extremely low fertility, while others - including the U.S., Sweden, and France - are only moderately below replacement. Sacerdote and Feyrer have a complicated explanation, but their most original claim is that national fertility variations are strongly affected by how much men help around the house:

[H]igh-income countries such as Italy, Spain, Germany, and Japan, where men do the smallest fraction of the household chores and child care... are also the high-income countries with the lowest fertility rates.

The paper is essentially a tale of gender conflict. When women bear almost all of the burden of housework, the marginal cost of children for women is very high, so their quantity demanded goes down. I don't think that Sacerdote and Feyrer say so explicitly, but their analysis also implies that as the amount of housework that men do goes down, their quantity of children demanded goes up.

One problem with this model: It's not entirely clear why family size would shrink when women want fewer kids AND men want more. With bargaining and side payments, it's conceivable that the number of kids would actually rise.

But my main worry about this paper is the premise that men and women disagree about optimal family size. At least in the U.S., women and men see almost exactly eye-to-eye: Men say the optimal is 2.57, women say 2.56. If Sacerdote and Feyrer are correct, the U.S. pattern should be rare. In countries like Japan and Italy, where men do less housework than American men, men should want substantially more kids than women do. In countries like Sweden, when men do more housework than American men, men should want substantially fewer kids than women do. In other words, if this paper is correct, the (male/female ideal family size ratio) as a function of men's share of the housework will exceed 1 at low levels of housework, equal 1 at the American level of housework, and then fall below 1 when men's share of housework increases above the American level.

My guess, contrary to Sacerdote and Feyrer's story, is that male-female agreement on ideal family size is the rule around the world. Men and women may disagree about how clean the house should be, but they agree about how many people it ought to contain. Does anyone know if I'm wrong?

P.S. I'll be arriving at the Foundation for Economic Education's Young Scholars Colloquium later today. If you see me there, please say hi. :-)

P.P.S. I'll be in NYC on Sunday night. If any readers want to meet up for dinner and/or gaming, email me.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Ned writes:

I think their thesis would also be contradicted by intra-country social surveys: high-income families probably have fewer children than the poor ones, but men do more of the work in high-income households (that is my conjecture, anyway).

Chris writes:

Strictly a priori, I tend to believe that in families in high-income countries where men share a more equal portion of the housework, couples tend to be happier (or at least the wife!). A happy family environment is arguably more likely to push the family size to three (the seemingly high-end margin for optimal children); i.e. I share in the chores/child-care, my wife is happy --> my wife is happy, the house is happy --> the house is happy, let's have one more kid (or 'lets have 3 kids instead of 2')

That being said, I think couples tend to more or less agree on what is an ideal number of children before getting married, and the cleanliness of the house is not often a point of contention until children start crawling around.

Jason Malloy writes:

In countries like Japan and Italy, where men do less housework than American men, men should want substantially more kids than women do. In countries like Sweden, when men do more housework than American men, men should want substantially fewer kids than women do.

This doesn't follow. The point isn't that men want more children than women, but that women in developed nations have more children when males and institutions, for whatever diverse, even unintentional, reasons, make it easier for them to balance child-care and economic self-sufficiency (both of which are desired). I've argued this here before.

One way to boost fertility then, by the way, is Bruce Charlton's suggestion that years spent in education need to be radically condensed, which would give women more years of fertile, settled adulthood after education.

Floccina writes:

If you ask un-married women how many children they want they may be thinking that they will more help than they will and so in Italy, Japan they are more likely to stop before reaching the desired amount. I, because of my wife's condition decided to stop (against her will, I got a vasectomy), before I reached my desired number of children.

John Thacker writes:

It certainly seems possible that people who talk about an "optimal family size" are considering other factors optimized. "In an optimal family, where my husband did more of the housework, I'd like three kids."

My understanding of the research is that ideal family size does not vary all that much throughout the world. Italians and Japanese frequently say that they'd like more children than they actually have.

Jason Malloy writes:

Here are the nations that answered the question of ideal number of children in the World Values Survey at some point between 1999-2004:

Male/Female (combined)

Nigeria 4.51/4.61 (4.56)
Iraq 4.27/4.14 (4.20)
Uganda 4.33/4.03 (4.18)
Zimbabwe 4.02/4.22 (4.13)
Jordan 4.08/4.17 (4.12)
Tanzania 4.08/3.95 (4.02)
Saudi Arabia 3.80/3.55 (3.67)
Kyrgyzstan 3.70/3.35 (3.50)
Algeria 3.51/3.30 (3.41)
Montenegro 3.30/3.31 (3.31)
Philippines 3.33/3.25 (3.29)
Indonesia 2.98/3.12 (3.05)
Mexico 2.86/2.85 (2.86)
Venezuela 2.88/2.81 (2.85)
Pakistan 2.94/2.69 (2.82)
South Africa 2.85/2.78 (2.82)
Egypt 2.92/2.69 (2.81)
Argentina 2.77/2.81 (2.79)

Morocco 2.79/2.73 (2.76)
Moldova 2.80/2.69 (2.74)

Albania 2.69/2.77 (2.73)
Chile 2.75/2.70 (2.73)
Japan 2.69/2.67 (2.68)
Serbia 2.72/2.65 (2.68)
Canada 2.67/2.67 (2.67)
Macedonia 2.69/2.57 (2.63)
US 2.57/2.67 (2.62)
Singapore 2.54/2.63 (2.58)
Puerto Rico 2.57/2.57 (2.57)
Sweden 2.49/2.65 (2.57)
Turkey 2.55/2.47 (2.51)
Korea 2.46/2.43 (2.45)
Peru 2.37/2.31 (2.34)
India 2.26/2.43 (2.33)
Spain 2.24/2.32 (2.28)
Vietnam 2.15/2.21 (2.18)
Iran 2.06/2.17 (2.11)
Bangladesh 1.98/2.01 (1.99)

By Male/Female Difference ('+' = greater male preference):

Kyrgyzstan +.35
Uganda +.30
Pakistan +.25
Saudi Arabia +.25
Egypt +.23
Algeria +.21
Iraq +.13
Tanzania +.13
Macedonia +.12
Moldova +.11
Serbia +.07
South Africa +.07
Venezuela +.07
Philippines +.08
Turkey +.08
Morocco +.06
Peru +.06
Chile +.05
Korea +.03
Japan +.02
Mexico +.01

Canada =
Puerto Rico =

Montenegro -.01
Bangladesh -.03
Argentina -.04
Vietnam -.06
Albania -.08
Spain -.08
Jordan -.09
Singapore -.09
Nigeria -.10
US 2.57/2.67 -.10
Iran -.11
Indonesia -.14
Sweden -.16
India -.17
Zimbabwe -.20


[21 men want more, 2 equal, 15 women want more]

Jason Malloy writes:

Iranians are more likely than people of any other nation to say the ideal number of children is 0. Almost 4% say this, while in most countries it's less than 1%.

Very few women in particular say they want no children. The highest % by far are Iran (3.2%) and Korea (2.2%). Many more women say they want 8+ children than no children. It's highest in Nigeria where 10.4% want that many, though the number is pretty high in all the African nations (and Iraq).

Men in Uganda give the most extreme answers. 5.2% say they want no children (the highest % in that category), and 9.6% say they want 8+ (the fourth highest in that category)

Malloy, wow, that's a goldmine of counterintuitive data. Thanks (and thanks to the World Values Survey).

Bryan Caplan writes:

Thanks, Jason!

Dan Weber writes:

[H]igh-income countries such as Italy, Spain, Germany, and Japan, where men do the smallest fraction of the household chores and child care... are also the high-income countries with the lowest fertility rates.

Sorry to be late, but have they corrected for the fact that it could be the converse that is true -- that is, low fertility rates cause men to do less child care, simply because there are less chilren?

Emilia Liz writes:

Good link, but other methods besides ideal number of children give hints on whether and by how much the desired number of children differs between women and men. For example, surveys of married couples in developing countries have found that in most cases (12 out of 18, according to one demographer) women are more likely to want no more children than their husbands are. Another report in the journal Demography showed that in 24 samples of Asian couples in 14 the wives were more keen on completing their families than their husbands were (in the remaining 10 an equal number of men and women wanted to stop childbearing). However, in developed countries there doesn't seem to be a consistent pattern.

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