The economics of family planning programs

The intention of this blog post is to start a discussion on what effects a family planning program can have on a family. I will not discuss the effects on population as this would be beyond the scope of this blog post. At the start I will investigate why families have so many children. In the next section, I will illustrate some effects family planning programs have had on young girls. In the end I will discuss the effects on married women. This is not supposed to be a complet collection of all the effects family planning programs have but it should give you an insight on how complex this issue truly is.

In developing countries there are economic incentives for the poor to have many children. Children are often seen as a form of a retirement plan. Due to the lack of a social security safety net in most developing countries parents have most of the time no other choice but to have many children in the hope that one of them will be able to take care of them when they are old. This world view leads to significant effects when family planning programs forcefrully reduce the number of children per family (e.g. the one-child policy). After the one-child policy was introduced in China savings per family increased because parents could not depend on their child(ren) as much as there was lower chance of one of them being successful. Surprisingly families with fewer children tended to spend less money per child. This might seem to be counter intuitive but as family size decreases so does the likelyhood that the children will be able to take care of their parents, therefore increasing the necessity for the parents to save money for retirement. The problem here is that families have more children than they would like to have but by forcefully reducing the number of children the investment per child decreases.

Many developing countries have the problem that young females do not use contraceptives when engaging in sexual activities. This can lead to a few problems, the main issues being an increase in sexual transmitted diseases and an increase in teenage pregnancies. The effect of family planning problems on young girls depends heavily on the type of program used. The first two family planning programs I am going to discuss assume that young women are too irresponsible to have sex and therefore become pregnant so young. The most popular but in practice inefficient program is “abstinence only”. In Kenya the “ABCD” program was introduced which teaches students “be abstinent, be faithful use a condom or die”.  This program, although teaching students how to use condoms and in general spending more time on the dangers of HIV, did not show any significant effect. The next program simply taught young women that older men are more likely to have HIV. Surprisingly, this program was highly effective in both reducing early pregnancies and increasing protection usage. The argument behind this effect is that young women decided to get pregnant at an early age because they thought it was their best option. The young women then picked older men who hat the capability and who they thought would take care of them and their child. By giving the students new information on older men’s infection rate stopped them from seeing this as an option. Another program used a more indirect approach to family planning it started to pay for the school uniform of young girls. Here again was a strong positive effect on the reduction of teenage pregnancy. The argument is similar to the previous one, as young women have the option to stay longer in school they do not need to find a husband as early. In the end if an efficient family planning program is introduced young women will stay longer in school and are less likely to contract aids.

An interesting aspect of family planning in the economic sense is that women and men often have different ideas on how many children they want. It is often the case that husbands have more bargaining power than their wives and can therefore dictate how many children a family has. There exists a multitude of reasons for women having less power than men in a relationship: her outside option from marriage (e.g. career and divorce laws), cultural reasons, being less educated or simply being younger than their husbands. This has led to family planning programs trying to empower women instead of simply handing out condoms. This has been done in many different ways. In Peru a study showed that if women were included on the title of the house the amount of children per family decreased. This can be explained by the women having some safety net if they decide to divorce their husband and therefore having a stronger position in the marriage. Another example was that when women were given advice on safe intercourse in private (i.e. without their husband) they were more receptive to it. This program also had significant positive effect on the amount of children. By giving the choice of the amount of children to the women will reduce the amount of children in the family.

Family planning is a complex issue without even considering the effects on population control. In developing countries families tend to have more children than they would under other circumstances, using them as a form of investment in their own future. Solving this issue using family planning has caused only a reduction in investment for the children, therefore leading to unwanted effects. Young women on the other hand can be very perceptive to family planning programs if done correctly and have positive side effects from them. Married women need a more indirect approach to help them reduce the number of children as they are most often not the ones in charge in the household. I hope this blog post gave an insight on how complex the issue of family planning is even without considering possible moral issues. Further research could be done to help the poor have the amount of children they would prefer instead of forcing them to have more than they want.




Banerjee, Abhijit Vinayak, and Esther Duflo. Poor Economics: Barefoot Hedge-fund Managers, DIY Doctors and the Surprising Truth about Life on Less Than 1 [dollar] a Day. Penguin Books, 2011.


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