Do poor people, when get children, not think of the future?

The question that always comes in peoples’ minds when they visit poor areas in developing countries or elsewhere, why poor people have many children despite their poor situation, are they irrational? Don’t they know that it will be more difficult for them to improve their situation in the future? And how will they be able to feed them or even treat them in case of an illness? The philosophy of Economics says that people are rational, even they might seem irrational but we just have to think for the incentives behind their decisions, which can help us understand why they behave like that.

Anuj K. Shah is an assistant professor of Behavioral Science, studies the psychology that arises from facing resource scarcity and how being short on money and time affects decision-making. He has published a paper in 2012 entitled “Some Consequences of Having Too Little” in which he thinks that poor people make decisions and adopt behaviors that reinforce poverty and make it difficult to improve their poor situation. For instance, low-income individuals often play lotteries, fail to enroll in assistance programs, save too little, borrow too much and get a lot of children.

Some explanations for these behaviors focus on personality traits of poor, they are raised up and see their parents and people around them behave in a certain way and so they follow them when they grow up.  A major explanation by K. Shah (2012), suggests that scarcity changes how people allocate attention. It leads them to engage more deeply in some problems while neglecting others. For instance, researchers have found that people who are hungry and thirsty focus more on food and drink related cues. Likewise, the busy (facing time scarcity) respond to deadlines with greater focus on the task at hand. Another example, poor people tend to take short-term, high-interest loans. These loans make it easier to meet today’s needs, but the loans’ deferred costs make it difficult to meet future expenses. If scarcity creates a focus on pressing expenses today, then attention will go to the loan’s current benefits without concern to the future costs.

Applying the same argument on why poor people tend to have a high number of children. Although the clear answer may be that poor people use them to get higher income through helping them in their activities or pushing them to the labor market, but each additional child brings its own additional cost. The scarcity explanation can also give an answer to this case, poor people tend to think only of the benefits of each additional child can bring and neglect the costs he may incur in the future from raising up this child. It seems that scarcity create its own mindset, changing how people look at problems and make decisions.

But the question now is it only the scarcity problem? If we give poor people money, do we find them take good decisions that get them out of poverty? The answer is no, as it seems from the following mentioned explanations that it is not just about money and the scarcity problem, but there might be other reasons. By comparing data on the average number of children for a family in rural areas and urban ones or in developed and developing countries. It seems kids are considered inferior goods; the higher the income, the lower number of children we would expect. But why it is the case?

A first explanation is that most of the poor peoples’ activities are concentrated in rural areas where agricultural activities are prevailing, agriculture in developing countries still needs labor and as poor people get older and they don’t have other options other than agriculture, they see having children as an investment for the future who will replace them to work in land in case of a disease or aging of the parents and children for them is a cheap or free labor. The benefit of an extra pair of hands to gather the harvest outweighs the cost of feeding an extra mouth. And when you can no longer work in the fields, your children will be the only ones to look after you. In such a society, all the incentives point to having large families. So, poor people seem to think of the future but not the same way we think.

A second explanation is that it seems the costs of raising up children for poor people are not so high as people tend to expect. While empirical evidence shows that rich people over-invest in their children in terms of spending more time and money on childcare seeking for high quality children. On the other hand, poor people tend to spend the same time on a greater quantity of children and not give too much concern to the quality issue.

A third explanation is the female education, as peoples’ living conditions improve, they start to have better education and as a consequence better job opportunities and the tradeoff between going to the labor market for more income or doing household activities starts to be important. While in poor families, females tend more to care for children.

A forth explanation is the availability of contraceptives and its costs. Some people may give it a low significance, but it has been proved to be very crucial. While higher income people are able to pay for the contraceptives, poor people may find it difficult to obtain or not able to pay and that raises the importance of family planning in poor areas. A series of surveys by the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) program show that how many children parents want and how many they actually have. The picture it paints is of huge numbers of unplanned pregnancies. In Brazil, for example, the wanted fertility rate in 1990 was 1.8; the actual fertility rate then was 2.5. In India the wanted rate in 2006 was 1.9, the actual one 2.7. In Ghana the figures for 2003 were 3.7 and 4.4. The rule seems to be that women want one or two children fewer than they are having.

The Main goal of here is not to justify that poor people have their own incentives to bring many children but rather to show that by understanding how and why they behave in that way can make us suggest better solutions to their problems, for example, by giving more concern to issues like the education and the empowerment of women in poor societies and increasing the effectiveness of family planning programs.

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9 thoughts on “Do poor people, when get children, not think of the future?

  1. Parents desire a male Child . They thought male children can only be their support. A girl was born in unwelcome world. Of there is girl in a family; parents desire male children. It is worse Happening in The history of The World.

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    1. I agree with you that it is still this kind of thinking in developing communities that people want to get boys and even they give several births till they get a male child, but this happens because they think that only males can do some activities which women can’t do and it confirms on the issue of empowering women and enhancing the society’s education level and changing this way of thinking happens not only in schools, but even in religious institutions which people depend on in justifying their actions. I think the more educated is the society, the more people will tend to believe about the quality of both genders and even the ability of genders to make activities at an equal pace and this priority of male to female will diminish over time.

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  2. When you look at this topic from Islamic perspective – also still in rural areas in Turkey- people believes that when they have a children, God will help parents to rise them. So in case of lots of children, they still believe that God will help them to feed children. I also believe that, besides having a labor force for rural areas, there is still ‘bride money’ tradition which also make parents having lots of children without caring if it is a girl or a boy because in two cases parents will somehow profit from children. Moreover, in some countries there is a family tradition like when parents are old, children have to take care of them. So it can be also a way of having a secure future for parents.

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    1. I agree with you it has also some religious motivation, but I think they try to find a justification for their doings because God asks people to think and plan and then ask the help from God, but it isn’t the opposite the way I make something without planning for its consequences and then ask for the God’s help. But actually this is right some tend to think like that and that’s why in some areas where religion plays a significant role in people’s actions, responsible religious people have to be included in solving problems.

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  3. I will like to say that it is quite bias to assume only low income earners have many children,
    The environment/ tradition plays a huge role in the decision on how many children an individual will have, take for example, in mos African countries, Children are regarded as blessings from God and used to share the inheritance (people with more children get more lands), therefore, both the rich and the poor in developing countries tend to have more than 3 children
    On the other hand, Government policies which is mostly influenced by culture and traditions of the countries also adds up in making a decision on how many children to have, take for example, the 1 child policy in China
    I will also agree with you that most low income individuals who engage in peasant farming or petty trading use their children for labor to save the cost of labor, this is also another factor that affect the birth rate of low income individuals
    In conclusion, the decision to have children might not be made on a resources rationale involving the ability to take care of this children, low income families mostly lack education and family planning and find it difficult to prevent birth control, and abortion in these regions are often regarded as a taboo.
    When a family cannot afford sex education, contraceptives, this also explains why poor people might have more children than the rich who can afford these things, but on the other hand, rich people in regions where children signifies growth and more children a man has shows how much of a man he is also tend to have more children

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    1. The idea is with the ability to raise those children, for rich people they have no problem to bring children as much as they can as long as they can afford their caring costs. But the problem is with the poor people who don’t have the ability to raise them up and it can be one of the reasons for keeping a family in a poor situation.

      I agree with you, government policies also have influence, but China is one case, we can’t generalize. Most of other developing countries, governments have no control on the decision of having a child for a family. My idea was dealing with the individual’s decision to take this decision in a free will case without influence.

      I think the issue of a birth control on the national level is still controversial while some think over-population is good as long as it is being utilized, others think it is not favorable as it puts more pressures on governments’ capabilities. But here we are tackling the issue from the individual perspective. I think the issue of family planning is crucial and it has to be tackled from a broader view than it is usually dealt with.

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  4. I think the reason of education plays a significant role in this situation.

    In general, no only the education for female means a lot, but also the male’s education. Because the decision of having a child has to be decided by the couple. LoL. The more education they got, the more they would consider when they are making their minds. What kind of parenting this kid will get? What kind of school this kid will go, the private one or the public one? Something more detailed like this. Perhaps after the consideration, they would like just be DINK (Double Income No Kids). It is possible.

    Personally, I wrote the topic about the effects of poverty on children development. After the essay, I sort of do not want any child in 5 years. Because after the research I did, I am worried about whether I could take the responsibility for this child or not. Responsibility implies that I have to spend time on him or her, provide her or him with the best education I could reach regarding parenting and schooling, and as well raise up him or her in a secure, healthy, and content way to make sure that he or she would be a productive person who is able to do whatever he or she wants.

    I am not joking. If all the people around the world could be well-educated, especailly they did a course like BDE to write some topics relevant to our topics, they would not decide to have a baby so rashly. LoL. I know this opinion is kind of absurd, but it is my life experience. LOL. Anyways, what I am supposed to say is that education is everything.

    Thanks for your blog, I like the topic and your analysis!

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    1. I would also give the same importance to education as you suggested.

      The idea I give more weight to females’ education because they bear most of the responsibility of taking care of the children and if she is more educated, she will enjoy better job opportunities, which makes her to rethink of bringing another child or going to the labor market and earn income (the trade-off between labor market and household production will be more significant) I assume that the decision of having another child is more of a female decision 🙂

      And concerning your personal opinion, I would also do the same :). As you become more educated, you start to think of giving your children at least the same or higher education than you enjoyed and you give too much concern to the quality issue because you feel you have a responsibility. As your parents have invested in you, you also want to invest in your children.

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  5. i would like to endorse this statement.Ceteris paribus the poor tend to consume more than the rich, while the rich tend to save more than the poor. The rich have so many areas of expenditures so much that they see children as cost while the poor see children as benefits. The rich always prefer to preserve their family status as being rich and as such will do everything to uphold this virtue. Thus having greater amount of children may reduce this virtue to ground level and possibly becoming poor one day, that is why they tend to save more for their ”few’ children, grand children and great grand children. It thus becomes a continuous process.
    However the poor see children as a benefits or wealth. Looking at the primitive or traditional economy system, the villagers always live in harmony, work together, play together, eat together and celebrate life in a community way. This reduces cost as their children are brought up not as individual’s family duty but as a community duty. That is why agriculture remains the backbone in most villages than in towns in the developing countries. They spent less to consume more while the rich save more and consume less.

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