Bryan Caplan  

The Decline of the Rabbit Strategy

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From chapter 5 of the first draft of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids:

When I was a kid, people often accused others of "breeding like rabbits."  If you know much about rabbits, it's not a pretty picture: Rabbits get pregnant four times a year, have litters of half a dozen, nurse their young for only minutes a day, and boot them out of the nest after a month.  The point of the rabbit analogy is that we expect more from human beings.  We ought to use our heads to carefully calculate how many children we can comfortably support, and stop when we reach that number.  If you don't use your head, you will not only be a bad parent and a burden on society.  You will ruin your life.

You don't hear the rabbit analogy much anymore.  In part, it sounds faintly racist.  But the main reason we stopped comparing people to rabbits is that - at least in developed countries - we rarely get the chance.  People today have too much foresight to breed like rabbits.  Sure, many babies remain the fruit of impulsive, unprotected sex.  Yet these babies rarely have a lot of siblings.  If you look at thirty-something American moms who never married, 45% have just one child, and 26% have two; married moms in their thirties, in contrast, are much more likely to have two kids (41%) rather than one (22%).  Almost no one nowadays sticks with a rabbit strategy after they have one or two unwanted children.


The facts at the end are from the General Social Survey.  If you look carefully at the thirty-something moms, you might notice that compared to married moms, those who never married are equally likely to have 7 kids, and two-and-half times as likely to have eight or more.  However, families with more than six kids are so rare (1% of the married moms and 1.6% of never-married moms) that these ratios mean next to nothing.  Could availability bias plus the extreme behavior of the tail of the distribution account for the popular stereotype of the welfare mom with an army of kids?


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TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/2501
The author at South Bend 7 in a related article titled "The Rabbit Strategy" writes:
    Doing some literal back-of-the-envelope calculations, I figure that even if only 1% of mothers have 8 or more kids, they would still be responsible for about 4.5% of total births. Put another way, if only 1 in 100 mothers you meet have had 8 or more ki... [Tracked on October 27, 2009 1:30 PM]
COMMENTS (9 to date)
razib writes:

i grew up in an area which was ~50% mormon, ~50% non-mormon. so the phrase would still get thrown around some....

Pyramid Head writes:

"If you know much about rabbits" should read "If you know something about rabbits"... Otherwise, I agree with your general point - even in south America "rabbit families" are unusual.

Joseph Medlin writes:

I completely agree with you here. These "rabbit families" are all too common around my area of birth. For some reason, children are the new wedding bands, or at least, the precursor to the purchase of a wedding band. Many young couples believe that having kids is the best way to prove they are responsible(disregarding the fact that unprotected sex was involved) and that children will be their way to escape the scrutiny of a limiting society. Inevitably, one of two things will occur, the couple with either miraculously luck out, either by themselves or with the help of their parents, or a complete and total train wreck will occur because of a few bad ideas.
I don't see the point in having children if you know you cannot, at the time, support them with sound mind. To see a economically insufficient couple have a child or multiple children deeply worries me. Chances are, this new bushel of pitter-pattering feet will break the bank for the couple involved.

b writes:

http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr57/nvsr57_12.pdf

Check the census data for yourself. Minorities continue to have more children at earlier ages. This no doubt contributes to stereotypes (rightly or wrongly).

Married and unmarried misses the point. There are plenty of situations where an unmarried mother could adequately suport a child. I'd be more intested to look at Welfare/Public Assitance rolls.

I don't care how many kids you have if you can pay for there food/housing/etc. and not burden society with them. But if you have one kid and need public assistance, well, then it's my problem.

Leave the cozy confines of your university office and go spend some time in SE Washington DC. Then let us know what you think about people and their "Selfish Reasons to Have Kids."

SB7 writes:

b, you're right that whether you can support your children is a bigger issue for taxpayers than how many children you have, but I think you're kind of missing the point. Selfish Reasons to Have Kids isn't aimed at SE DC. That isn't the audience. Someone who is already on welfare (or equivalents) isn't going to be swayed to have another kid because of what they read on EconLog. The educated, white collar couple leading a life of below-replacement-level fertility just might.

b writes:

SB7

Don't think I'm missing the point. The article itself asserts that, "People today have too much foresight to breed like rabbits." I disagree. I'm sure they do in Brian (and your) neck of the woods, but these numbers do nothing to dispute the fact that millions of single moms continue to collect billions annually in government funds.

And, Caplan finishes with the question, "Could availability bias plus the extreme behavior of the tail of the distribution account for the popular stereotype of the welfare mom with an army of kids?"

My answer to that question is, no, the stereotype of the welfare mom arises because, it any urban center, you find innumerable examples to support said stereotype. I maintain my assertion that if the author got outside the sterile halls of academia and into the less savory parts of the city, he would quickly reverse his assertion that the causes of such a stereotype have resolved.

Dr. T writes:

Here are more statistics from that dataset for single women from 18 to 30 years old:

At least one child: 67%

Of those single women with children:
1 child: 43%
2 children: 37%
3 children: 13%
4 or more: 7%

This looks like rabbits to me. Two-thirds of unmarried women age 30 and under have children. The majority (57%) of those single women have more than one child, and a fifth of them have more than two children. If we assume that childbearing stops at age 45, then these women have 15-27 reproductive years remaining, so the numbers of single mothers (or formerly single mothers if they get married) with more than two children is almost certain to increase.

My question: Why did Bryan Caplan omit the 18-29 age group?

Lee Kelly writes:

So what you're saying is that if rabbits start earning more income, they'll start having less offspring?

Caitlyn Nesbitt writes:

I personally believe that the rabbit strategy still exists. The amount of young people having unwanted children is outrageous. Many just want children to have children or they weren't planned at all. But many of these girls don't learn the first time but maybe the second or the third child will teach them.

Another example of the rabbit strategy is crazy women like the octomom who choose to have as many children as they want without thinking about the responsiblity. For some reason many woman think that children will take away the feeling of being alone and give them all the love they will ever need. This is crazy if a person is unable to support a child.

People are selfish and only think about themselves and what they want. Not thinking about the responsiblities that come along with their actions. So therefore i still believe that rabbit strategy still exists.

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