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.
- Shah, Mullainathan and Shafir, 2012, “Some Consequences of Having Too Little”, Science 338, 682 (2012); DOI: 10.1126/science.1222426.
- The Economist: Fertility and living standards (http://www.economist.com/node/14743589?story_id=147435)
- Freakonomics: The Rich vs Poor Debate: Are Kids Normal or Inferior Goods (http://freakonomics.com/2011/06/10/the-rich-vs-poor-debate-are-kids-normal-or-inferior-goods/)
- Cato-unbound: The Politics of Family Size, Parents Are Unhappy. But Why? And Should We Care? By Betsey Stevenson (http://www.cato-unbound.org/issues/may-2011/politics-family-size)