Bryan Caplan  

America vs. Japan: Where Is It Better for Kids?

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In the U.S., 40% of babies are now born out of wedlock.  In Japan, only 2% are.  Clearly, then, it's better to be a baby in Japan than America, right?  For all my skepticism about nurture effects, I'm tempted to agree.  I wouldn't want my kids to grow up without two married parents, even if their childhood memories were the only measurable long-run effect.

Nevertheless, I have no doubt that the lives of kids born out of wedlock are worth living.  It might be nicer to grow up in a traditional family, but can you imagine someone saying, "My parents weren't married, 'twould be better never to have been born"?

Now consider: The U.S. has a much higher total fertility rate than Japan.  The U.S. is roughly at replacement: 2.1 kids per woman.   Japan, in contrast, is way down at 1.3.  This means, amazingly, that American and Japanese women give birth to almost exactly the same average number of in-wedlock babies: 1.26 versus 1.27.  The difference: American women then go on to have an additional .84 babies out of wedlock, versus only .03 for Japanese women.

In what sense, then, are kids better off in Japan than the U.S.?  Arithmetically speaking, Japan's accomplishment isn't to give more babies a traditional, two-parent home.  Its "accomplishment," rather, is simply not having babies any other way.  If the U.S. became like Japan, it wouldn't mean that all the kids now born out of wedlock would have two married parents to raise them.  It would mean, rather, that the kids now born out of wedlock wouldn't exist at all.

I hope my sons will eventually marry and give me grandchildren.  Still, I would much rather they have children out of wedlock than remain childless.  (And yes, I'd feel the same way if I had daughters).  Why not look at countries the same way?

HT: Robin

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COMMENTS (14 to date)
tom writes:

First, are you talking about two-parent homes, or birth out of wedlock? I have kids and I don't know that any kid in their schools was born out of wedlock. There are divorces but that's very different.

Second, shouldn't you be comparing more narrowly by subgroups/class to get something useful?

Third, you are a bad example for wishes about your kids having kids. First, they are sons so they aren't going to be abandoned by the other parent to raise the kids alone. Second, your sons are the sons of a very smart university economics professor. Their kids will be very smart. So you are saying that Swedish childbearing standards would be okay for you. But a lot of out of wedlock lives are not quite Swedish.

RL writes:

Bryan notes it is hard to imagine someone saying: "My parents weren't married, 'twould be better never to have been born".

True, but isn't this primarily because someone born out of wedlock is highly unlikely to have "'twould" in his vocabulary?


Josh writes:

However, what is the aggregated impact to society by these additional .84 babies born per female in the US? I know you have written extensively on the positive net return of offspring to society. I am not familiar if you specifically looked at “out-of-wedlock” children born in the US. Please disabuse me of my ignorance if I’m off here.

I am asking this as, it may make perfect sense that we all what our children to have children regardless of marital status. But, if most of these children are much more likely to be born to low-income mothers, is society benefiting? Are these additional offspring sufficiently productive? Also, how do these .84 babies impact the mother’s productivity? My hunch is that if you are low income and single, an extra baby (or so) severely limits your future income.

Jusitn Ross writes:

I suspect this is more related to cohabitation substituting out marriage, rather than a single parent phenomenon.

Radford Neal writes:

Isn't this "out of wedlock" thing the wrong criterion? The right thing to look at would be "lived together with both parents until age 18". In some countries (Japan?), these may be almost identical criteria in practice, but in others it's quite common for the mother and father to live together with the child without seeing any need to get married. And divorce soon after birth of a child is hardly unknown as well. So comparisons of "out of wedlock" births don't seem to get at what I presume is the real issue.

nicole writes:

Bryan, your "worth living" link goes to your post on the "Lorelai Paradox," which is meant to show that Lorelai's life as a single mom was worth living--not that Rory's was worth living. Is that not right? Do you actually have a justification posted somewhere for why you think children are better off having been born?

After all, you say "can you imagine someone saying, 'My parents weren't married, 'twould be better never to have been born'?"--but I can imagine saying that of everyone. In any of your writings on natalism or your upcoming book do you refute that or even consider it? I'd be very interested in reading such an argument.

Marcus writes:

Bryan wrote, "My parents weren't married, 'twould be better never to have been born"?

Is there anything that argument wouldn't apply too? Were the lives of those born in the Soviet Union worth living? Even communism is justifiable if that the standard we measure it against.

Granite26 writes:

I live in the South, but my friends are neatly divided into the 'pregnant too soon, guy pays child support' and the 'married with 2.1 kids and 2 car garage' categories. There's no 'living together with kids, but not actually married' Also: I'm 31 years old. My dating pool in the last 5-10 years was extremely heavy on the single moms. Looking around work, I see the same trend. People are either married, or were estranged.

Basically: My experience has not been for a trend of just not filling out the paperwork.

Kurbla writes:

Highly unusual discussion. But, let's play:

Central Africa has very high birth rate, so it might be region of choice: if you're unborn -- and you read this -- you have better chance to be born in Congo, than in Luxemburg, on the first place.


Robin Hanson writes:

This is a great point about Japan, but I doubt it holds for Utah, which has only a 20% out of wedlock birth. I'll bet Utah has more substitution between wed and unwed births.

Mike writes:

You write: "I wouldn't want my kids to grow up without two married parents, even if their childhood memories were the only measurable long-run effect."
- Well, if would prefer my kids to grow up with two parents. But married, why would that matter?
In many developed countries marriage is not in any way the social norm as in the US (rather, US is an exception in the developed world with its very high marriage rate). My kids, the kids of my friends, all grow up (right now at least) with two unmarried parents.

Further, in the related discussions on "overcoming bias" and other blogs, it seems almost taken for granted that dads "dissapear" after a divorce. How common is this in the US? In many European countries shared custody after a divorce is rather the "social norm" (and I guess many kids see their fathers more after a divorce, than before), especially among the more highly educated men/women.

DanT writes:

Looking at the data (linked to) for out of wedlock births, Japan stands out as extremely low compared to Europe and USA. The question is "Why does Japan have almost no children born out of wedlock?"

I believe culture is the answer. As I recall, Japanese traditionally didn't give names to babies until they were 3 days old. In effect, they don't exist as full persons for 3 days after birth. This makes it culturally acceptable to have abortions with no guilt: human life doesn't begin at conception, but 3 days AFTER birth.

Combine phychological ease of abortion with safe, low-cost clinics and with even a low-moderate cost (social or financial) for out of wedlock birth and you get the Japanese result.

hacs writes:

When my wife, in her end-of-course monograph in Statistics, has studied Brazilian data about total fertility rate (1991 to 2000 TFR transition), relating it to the women's income, it has appeared a U-like curve in both census, but more prominent at 2000, mainly in Sao Paulo, the wealthiest state of Brazil. Maybe, that could explain such phenomenon.

PeterW writes:

For those who claim that the increase in single moms is because of cohabitation, do you really believe that ALL of the new single moms have a stable dad who helps raise the kids? Becuase that is what's necessary for your argument to hold water, and I find that pretty unbelievable.

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