How many are too many?

12 Jul 2019


The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

IN my last article I talked about a family of seven who were having difficulty making ends meet. A number of people commented on the article asking why the head of this household had decided to get married and/or have four children when he had very limited resources. Some of the comments went further and said that the state should not be responsible for the ‘mistakes’ people make and should even think of ‘penalising’ people who have more children than they can afford.

The size of our population is large; we are a young population (the median age is 24 years old), and our growth rate is still very high — the highest in the region. We have clearly not as yet made a demographic transition. A young population with a high population growth rate does impose significant costs on the state and society.

But it is also the case that most of the literature on demography and population points out that reduction in fertility happens due to a number of supply and demand driven factors, and most of these tend to be endogenous to the development process. People reduce the number of children they have when they have better alternatives for saving and investment, when the opportunity cost of having children goes up, when women get more education, when the job market for women tightens and when survival rates for infants are higher. On the supply side, having better access to contraceptives and health facilities makes a significant difference as well.

How can parents know how many of their children will survive to adulthood?

There have been countries that have used more direct methods for forcing reductions in fertility rates. China’s one-child policy is probably the best-known example. Some jurisdictions have also used sterilisation policies. But apart from the fact that these policies raise significant and often insurmountable moral and legal issues, they have also not been easy to implement, nor have they been found to be very effective in most instances. It is hard to see how other countries — with their different cultures, socio-political setups and governance mechanisms — would be able to effectively replicate China’s one-child policy.

People have children for multiple reasons. Many see it as a religious or human duty and/or a ‘natural’ outcome of life and marriage. Others treat children as a means of pleasure and, for others, they are a means for managing savings and/or investments.

If a certain proportion of children die in infancy, and parents have a target number of children in mind, the number of pregnancies will also be higher to take into account mortality probabilities.

Even if parents do not think explicitly about the number of children, sex composition of their children and/or the costs/benefits of having children, a lot of the above-mentioned considerations factor into the actual decisions that parents make.

If there are no savings/investment instruments other than children available to families, the reliance on having one’s own children increases. If elderly care is not available, the reliance on children is higher. If there is little or no opportunity cost to having children (demands on current time), the number of children will go up. If the cost of raising children is partially borne by others (joint family system or subsidy by grandparents), the number of children will increase. If family planning facilities are not readily accessible, planning families will be harder.

As economies develop and the above-mentioned constraints are loosened, people start having fewer children. People might take a bit of time to internalise the changes that are happening in the economy but, with most societies, with a time lag, we do find that fertility rates start coming down quite rapidly.

But, given the state of the development of the Pakistani economy, state and society, we have not reached the point where fertility rates have started coming down sharply. Social protection, for most people, is non-existent. The state does not provide affordable access to decent quality health and education facilities. The poor do not have access to savings and investment instruments. They do not have access to credit. A lot of them do not even have bank accounts.

On the supply side, family planning facilities are not widely available, and there are still social issues in accessing and/or using them.

And, though infant and maternal mortality rates have come down in Pakistan, the rate of reduction has been very slow and, as of now, our infant and maternal mortality rates are considered high even in this region. How can parents know how many of their children will survive to adulthood? This is especially the case for the poor. Child and mother mortality rates and poverty are positively related.

Under these circumstances, does it make sense to make a strong judgment about a couple deciding to have four children?  They have little certainty about how many would survive to adulthood. They have no other means of saving or investment. Their only hope for improving their economic condition is intergenerational — the children, if they get educated and gain relevant vocational skills, might have a better life than the parent. But, for this, they have to have enough children who survive long enough to start working to make sure others can pursue an education. This is especially true given access to quality education is not available for the poor through the state.

Population and population growth is a serious issue for sure. The government needs to do a lot in this area. But it is not going to be addressed by forcing people or restricting them; it is by changing economic realities for people and by providing the requisite facilities. It is also certainly not by blaming people for decisions that they make, given their reality, that this issue is going to be addressed.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2019