Good and bad fertility decline

With kind permission from Peter Rosset of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (or FoodFirst.org as it is also known), chapter 3 of World Hunger: 12 Myths, 2nd Edition, by Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset, with Luis Esparza (fully revised and updated, Grove/Atlantic and Food First Books, Oct. 1998) has been reproduced and posted here. Due to the length of the chapter, it has been split into sub pages on this site.

Rapid population growth, then, results from poverty and powerlessness, the need for family labor or the income children can bring home, high infant-mortality rates, and lack of education and opportunity for women. Our thesis for fertility decline is that, during the demographic transition, population growth normally slows only with far-reaching changes in society. Unfortunately, these changes can be of a positive or a negative nature.

On the positive side are economic and political changes that reduce infant mortality and convince the majority of people that social arrangements beyond the family-jobs, health care, old-age security, and education (especially for women)-offer security, or at least better opportunities than does large family size. We can call that the positive way that fertility rates fall, or because people are better off, they need fewer children.

On the other hand, the nature of poverty and powerlessness can change in ways that transform children from a net benefit to the family into a net cost without empowering people or raising them out of poverty and hunger. That could also bring fertility rates down, but in a negative way. We might describe this as things getting so bad that people can't even afford to have kids.

Another negative scenario of lowered fertility might occur when the economic structures that make additional children necessary have been left intact, yet birth control has been enforced through coercion and/or indoctrination. Then people would have less children when for economic reasons they should be having more, deepening poverty still further. This might be described as the tragedy of the sterilized, poor, older woman without children to support her.

Positive changes and declining fertility

Some of the earliest and most spectacular fertility declines occurred in the context of broad-based changes in living standards. Let's look at some of those examples.

Sri Lanka. From the postwar period to 1978, the Sri Lankan government supported the consumption of basic foods, notably rice, through a combination of free food, rationed food, and subsidized prices,30 initiatiting a long-term decline in fertility and population-growth rates.31

Cuba. Rationing and setting price ceilings on staples kept basic food affordable and available to the Cuban people from the 1959 revolution to the economic crisis of 1989.32 All citizens were guaranteed enough rice, pulses, oil, sugar, meat, and other food to provide them with nineteen hundred calories a day.33 As universal health care and education were made available to all, Cuba's birth rate fell from 4.7 to 1.6.34

Kerala, India. In this Indian state eleven thousand government-run fair-price shops keep the cost of rice and other essentials like kerosene within the reach of the poor. This subsidy accounts for as much as one-half of the total income of Kerala's poorer families.35 Its population density is three times the average for all India,36 yet commonly used indicators of hunger and poverty-infant mortality, life expectancy, and death rate-are all considerably more moderate in Kerala than in most low-income countries, as well as in India as a whole. Its infant mortality is half the all-India average.37 Literacy and education levels are far superior to other states, particularly for women: the female literacy rate in Kerala is two and a half times the all-India average.38 Not surprisingly then, Kerala rapidly reduced fertility and population growth in the postwar period. By 1991 Kerala had a birth rate that was one-third of the all-India average. That was about half the average for all low-income countries and only slightly higher than the United States.39

In most of these societies, income distribution is less skewed than in many other countries. The distribution of household income in Sri Lanka, for example, is more equitable than in Indonesia, India, or even the United States.40

In Thailand, the Philippines, and Costa Rica-other countries that experienced early fertility decline-health and other social indicators offer clues as to why. Infant death rates are relatively low, especially in Costa Rica, and life expectancy is high-for women, ranging between sixty-five and seventy-six years. Perhaps most important, in the Philippines and Costa Rica an unusually high proportion of women are educated, and in both the Philippines and Thailand, proportionately more women work outside the home than in most third world countries.41

Our careful reading of the scientific literature on fertility decline leads us to the conclusion that the bulk of it observed in the world so far has occurred for the "right" reasons. The Vandermeer study noted above indicates that reductions in poverty and inequality have been key factors. A 1994 Yale University study found that the education of women was the best predictor of reduced fertility rates among sixty-eight low-income countries.42 While the researchers did not consider inequality and poverty in this study, it seems reasonable to assume that greater education of women goes hand in hand with reductions of both.

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Negative changes and declining fertility

Unfortunately, there are several cases of fertility decline that do not fit the pattern of improving conditions for the poor. In the late 1980s and early 1990s a very rapid decline in fertility rates began in Kenya and a number of other African countries. At first glance this fit with the notion of the demographic transition. Infant-mortality rates had dropped and women's enrollment in primary and secondary education had risen throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.43 However, the actual declines, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, coincided with a severe economic crisis brought on by externally imposed "structural adjustment" policies, in which the poor were particularly hard hit (these policies are discussed in chapters 7 and 8).44 According to one observer, "Parents suffered a decline in real incomes, a rise in the cost of children and lowered expectations of what children could do for them."45 In response people either put off having more children or decided not to have them altogether.

Some observers have leapt to the frightening conclusion that economic crisis is the best contraceptive,46 with all the policy measures that implies. Others have celebrated that we need no longer tackle the arduous task of poverty reduction in order to reduce population growth.47 That makes no sense at all, on three levels. First, economic crisis may cause a temporary delay in childbearing, but once things get better, people will likely have the children they had put off. Second, economic crisis has unpredictable effects. Structural-adjustment-driven crisis in Costa Rica, unlike in Africa, led to an increase in fertility rates in the mid-1980s.48 Third, and far more important, we must keep track of our principal focus: hunger. Even if economic crisis were a good way to lower fertility, it certainly would be no help at all in alleviating hunger!

Nevertheless, the evidence on fertility decline and crisis tend to support our earlier argument that by and large people have the number of children they want. That, however, does not mean that under exceptional circumstances people cannot be coerced, paid, or indoctrinated to have fewer children than would normally make sense for them.

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  • Posted: Saturday, December 02, 2000

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