Sociology 304

March 12, 1998

Applications of Folbre's Analysis: Fertility Change

Applications of Folbre's Analysis

The following notes contain a discussion of two applications of the theoretical approach developed by Folbre in Who Pays for the Kids? The theoretical approach is outlined on pp. 38-50 of Who Pays for the Kids? and there is a discussion of these in the notes of Folbre's Feminist Approach. This approach is used to (i) provide an explanation of fertility changes in European and North American history, and (ii) discuss some aspects of the development and changes in the United States social security program.

I. Changes in Fertility and the Household

A. Background

1. Fertility and the Demographic Transition. Fertility is defined as the actual number of children born and the fertility rate may be measured by the birth rate or the number of children born per woman. While there were great variations in fertility over time and across space, in general fertility rates were higher than today - often averaging five or more children per woman. Mortality or death rates were very high, with infant and child mortality being common. In these circumstances, so that populations could reproduce, fertility needed to be fairly high. In addition, children were assets, contributing labour to the household, maintaining the family lineage, and assisting elderly parents.

Beginning around the middle of the eighteenth century, with the development of improved agriculture and public health, mortality declined so that many more children survived to adulthood. In response to the decline of mortality and the increased cost of children, fertility rates declined dramatically, especially after 1850. By the 1930s, fertility declined to a low level, so that fertility and mortality rates were approximately equal. In North America, there was a baby boom in the 1950s, but since the early 1960s fertility has again declined, so that the number of children born per woman is now under two. If continued, in several decades these low fertility rates will lead to a decline in population. In the meantime, population growth rates in Western Europe and North America are low, but with there being more births than deaths.

2. Conventional Explanations of Changes in Fertility. Mortality decline has meant that most children survive, so that families do not need to have large numbers of children to ensure one or two survivors. In addition, in modern, urban, industrial society, children have turned from being an asset to constituting a financial liability. Children cost more to raise and support in cities, child labour is not acceptable, and public education is common and required. As a result, the period that children need to be supported before becoming independent is long, resulting in high costs for families. As incomes improved, many families began to emphasize quality over quantity (p. 114), so that preferences shifted toward smaller families. In urban society, children became more mobile, less attached to parents, and could not be relied on to support their elderly parents. More recently, as female wages have increased, the opportunity costs of women bearing and caring for children by staying outside the paid labour force, increased considerably. These are some of the factors that have been used to explain the decline in fertility that began in Europe and North America in the mid 1700s, and has continued ever since. That is, the cost/benefit balance shifted from favouring high fertility to encouraging low fertility rates.

Feminist and Marxist explanations generally add patriarchy and female independence as related factors. Patriarchal control by males generally encourages high fertility, since the costs of children tend to fall disproportionately on females. In addition, desire for heirs so that property can be passed on to the next generation, may dictate high fertility, especially during periods of high mortality. More recently, women have been able to overcome some of these patriarchal controls, gaining economic independence by entering the labour force. Over the last 100-150 years, women's movements have organized women collectively to achieve greater independence. These changes have allowed women to assert greater control over deciding on the number of children they will have, and the result has been a decline in fertility. At the same time, Folbre notes that some men have responded to these changes by reducing their family commitments, through desertion or divorce (p. 105).

Folbre cites many of the above factors in her discussion of fertility decline. However, she notes that these explanations may be incomplete, and they ignore some of the developments that have occurred at different times in history. She emphasizes structures of constraint as being important and that a variety of factors and influences need to be considered - "the interaction between technical and institutional changes and structures of constraint based on nation, class, age, and sexual preference" (p. 149). Among the factors to consider are (i) patriarchy, (ii) distribution of costs of social reproduction, (iii) family and household structures, and (iv) intergenerational bargaining. Further, while the conventional explanations emphasize the common actions of large numbers of females and families in the same situation, Folbre notes,

Fertility decline cannot be described as a simple aggregation of individual choices to conceive or not to conceive. A circular, cumulative process of struggle over the distribution of the costs of children accompanies the technological changes associated with fertility decline. (p. 111).

B. Fertility Change in Europe

The following notes summarize some of the historical explanations that Folbre provides for fertility decline in Western Europe (Who Pays for the Kids? pp. 104-116 and 133-147). While the timing of these changes differed in the different regions of Europe, much of the general argument holds for all of the areas in Europe, and to some extent for North America as well.

1. Feudal Patriarchy. In Chapter 4, Folbre examines changes in fertility in the development of Northwestern European society (Britain, France, Scandanavia, low countries), from the feudal period to the nineteenth century. Following the Romans, and continuing into the middle ages, this region was characterized by feudal economic and social structures, with patriarchy being a central feature. Folbre notes that "the power of the father over his wife and children served as a template for feudal structures of constraint that treated the lord as a father exercising natural, God-given authority over his family" (p. 135). This patriarchal structure pervaded the whole society - the relationship among the lords, the relationship of lord to peasant, the relationship of men and women, and the relationship of father and children. In terms of the structures of constraint, coercion was common, and rules and norms dictated a hierarchical society that had all three aspects of patriarchy - male dominance, control over the younger generation, and limits on acceptable forms of sexuality (pp. 134-5).

The middle ages was also characterized by a rural, agricultural, and decentralized population. Cities and towns were small and few in number, markets and exchange was limited, and most people were closely connected to the land. The assets that people generally possessed were (i) land (limited for peasants and plentiful for the powerful), and (ii) the ability to work. On the limited land that most peasants had, work was difficult and there were only relatively simple tools and limited technological development. People were generally not free to move, being tied to the land by laws, coercion, and economic factors.

2. Children and Women. Within this context, children could generally be considered an asset, although one whose value and advantages varied by time, region, and class. For the large landholders, male children were desired in order to allow transmission of property to the next generation. Female and male children were often used to create alliances with other landholders, military groups, and the politically powerful. Females generally were not allowed to own or inherit property (although the exact rules differed by region), and there were laws, rules, and norms that prevented this.

For the peasantry, "women and children were a crucial source of labour in agricultural and household production" (p. 135). There were explicit restrictions (rules and norms) on what females were allowed to do (the chance of females gaining an education were very limited and entry into only a limited range of training and jobs was allowed) and wages generally were lower for females than males. Males were allowed to abuse their wives and children, although males also had responsibilities to support wives and children.

Children remained under the control of the father for many years, with children having responsibility to assist the family of origin. Children also had responsibilities to support their elderly parents. Rules and norms required this, and economic and political factors were such that children had little alternative anyway. Given the limited labour available, the great need for agricultural labour, the high mortality levels, and the subsistence level of much of Europe, children were an asset and a necessity for families. Folbre notes that the "feudal patriarchy" (p. 136) acted to benefit some much more than others, so that there was a very unequal distribution of costs and benefits. Large landholders benefited most but males generally benefited and females and children did not have as many benefits. Folbre notes that in societies where children depended on obtaining property from parents, ties between parents and children were generally strong, and adult children supported elderly parents (p. 108). Fathers had considerable control over children because they "could make transfers of property contingent on children's obedience" (p. 136).

3. Fertility. Feudal rulers wished to have high fertility in order to increase the number of labourers on their land, as a means of increasing the amount of surplus that would accrue to the ruler (direct labour, military labour, surplus products). Peasant families also needed to have several children in order to ensure that a few survived to provide support for the parents in middle and old age. Together this created a situation where high fertility was desired, at least by males.

In this society, the costs of children and social reproduction fell disproportionately on females, and males often had a greater interest in high fertility than did females. Patriarchal control over women and their marriage decisions played an important role. With a strong patriarchal system and children as assets, men could control women and children, encourage early marriage and high fertility. Folbre implies that when children are valuable, males may attempt to make patriarchal controls stonger. Later in European history, when children became costly and less valued as assets, patriarchal control also became weaker.

Before the advent of modern birth control methods, one of the main forms of fertility control was celibacy. Changes in the age of marriage led fairly directly to changes in fertility. In Europe, strong patriarchal control and norms concerning ability to support the household could be used to regulate age at marriage. Folbre notes that "control over the marriage decisions of the younger generation provided a safety valve" (p. 137). That is, in certain periods fathers might encourage children to marry at a young age; at other times, parents might insist that children stay in the family and contribute labour and resources to the family.

4. Mortality. In the early middle ages, fertility was high and population grew, so that more land was turned over to agricultural uses and technological improvements were made. The bubonic plagues that swept through Europe between 1300 and 1600 shifted the balance of class, gender, and family relationships. Extremely high mortality produced huge population losses (population declined by half or more in some regions) so that supplies of labour became limited and were scarce. In this situation, bargaining power shifted away from patriarchs, and different structures of constraint developed. While the interests of lords and patriarchs continued to be to have high fertility, peasants and especially women and children no longer needed to be so subject to the dictates of the lords and males. Many peasants became free labourers and "patriarchal relations were destabilized" (p. 138). Control over children was weakened as land became more readily available. Male control over women also weakened and Folbre notes that male/female wage differentials narrowed.

With limited numbers of labourers and extensive land, a rational solution might appear to have been early marriage and high fertility levels in order to produce more labourers. But weakened patriarchal control during this time was associated with declines in marriage rates, along with greater use of contraception, abortion, and infanticide. This is an example of the shifting patterns of rules and norms in the context of changed costs, benefits, and asset values. The conventional economic approach might encourage a technical or economic solution and would lead to an expectation of fertility increase (because of labour scarcity), but weakened patriarchal control (also because of labour scarcity and land availability) appear to have led to fertility decline.

5. Renewed Patriarchal Control. From the sixteenth century on, the situation again changed. Population continued to grow and there began to be greater pressure on the land. This was more conducive to re-establishing control by males and Folbre notes that during this time there were many efforts to strengthen patriarchal control (witch trials, limits on heritability of property through laws and norms, rules and laws concerning age of marriage). Folbre cites norms or ideologies concerning females as well - Martin Luther viewed women as sources of 'insatiable lust' (p. 139).

6. Late Age at Marriage. While patriarchy became stronger, it took on new forms after 1500. Strategies concerning marriage, household formation, and parent/child relationships shifted toward what became known as a European pattern of late age at marriage. That is, rather than capitalizing on children as an asset by having large numbers of children, a pattern of children contributing labour and income to the household and staying in the household of origin until quite a late age developed. This produced somewhat lower fertility levels, and among demographers and historians this is sometimes regarded as a response to the limited availability of land. Folbre argues that patriarchal control over inheritance of property and laws governing age at marriage seem to have been just as important as the limited amount of land. These strengthened patriarchal controls allowed fathers to pass their land on to the eldest son, and for parents to gain the benefits of the unmarried adult children's labour.

Folbre concludes this section noting that while economic factors were important in these developments, re-establishment of patriarchal control, and class, gender, and age divisions were also important factors. The changing value of children as an asset was met with different rules, norms, and family strategies which maintained patriarchy.

7. Early Industrialization. The development of industry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries led to more changes in family and household strategies. Population growth and limited availability of land meant that young people often faced a grim future on the land. Young people were driven from the land as agricultural consolidation and capitalist agriculture emerged. One response to population pressure on the land was emigration to North America. Within Europe, cities and industries also began to grow. As agriculture became more market oriented, and private ownership of land became more widespread, there was insufficient land and opportunities to accommodate all the children from rural areas of Europe, so some young people and families moved to cities, others went to North America.

The early pattern of rural and urban industrialization in this period meant that children could be employed in factories at quite a young age. This meant that children became an asset, whose labour could be used by parents to contribute income to the household. In addition, the rules and norms governing age at marriage and patterns of sexuality were likely to be less operative in the expanding cities than they were in rural areas. As a result, fertility rates increased during the period of early industrialization.

The higher fertility rates may also have reflected a weakening of patriarchal control, with adults no longer being closely tied to their family of origin. The limited economic possibilities within rural areas and the expanding number of jobs in industry weakened the ability of fathers to control their children, so that the possibilities for independence were much greater for young people. An associated factor was the weakened tie between generations, with children providing less support for aged parents (p. 141). Parents could no longer demand that children stay on the land, because the parents could not promise that land would be available. In addition, the new industrial economy encouraged mobility, requiring workers to move to where factories and cities were built.

Folbre argues that males have greater control when the costs of children are low, as they were in the first half of the nineteenth century, during the period of early industrialization. When the costs of children are greater, males may be more likely to avoid these costs and let females take on the costs (pp. 111-112). The changes in fertility and household patterns that emerged during early industrialization show the need to examine each specific historical situation, to see how the various structures and constraints interact with the possibilities faced by families, parents, and households.

8. Women may not have fared well within this early industrial system. Folbre notes that desertion was common and there were many out-of-wedlock births. In the early nineteenth century in France and England, there were changes in laws that weakened the position of women there (p. 145). Women were employed in factories, and this gave them some independence, but wages were generally much lower than for males. Folbre notes that male employers abided by prevailing norms, and trade unions and reformers argued that women should not be part of the workplace. The exclusion of women from the labour force signaled a decline in the status of women, at least in terms of what was valued in the new capitalist society - production and public activity. To the extent that the family wage was achieved by male workers, and the incomes shared equitably within the family, some women may have improved their economic position, especially during the period after the 1850s.

9. Fertility declined in Europe and North America through the nineteenth and early twentieth century as the labour of children became less important as a source of family income. In Britain, the Factory Acts limited the employment possibilities for children (p. 142). The costs of raising and socializing children also rose as urbanization proceeded, child labour became restricted, and compulsory education developed. Further, children achieved independence at a fairly early age, so they did not contribute to the household when the parents were in middle age. Even at old age, the contribution to the parents likely declined considerably. The old pact between parents and children, that allowed parents to gain benefits from the labour of children through early adulthood, and expect support in old age, began to be broken. On all economic counts, children turned from a financial asset into an economic liability.

One of the results of this reduction of within family transfers (p. 117) was the development of movements to establish social welfare programs, or transfers through the state. Folbre notes that one of the characteristics of economic development has been a decline of within family transfers, in this case from the young to the old. The decline in such transfers was a factor in creating social programs such as public pensions and social security, although these did not become widespread until the twentieth century.

The decline of patriarchal power and the increased costs and reduced benefits of children led to fertility decline. The growing importance of early feminist movements also played an important role. Folbre notes that as capitalism developed in the nineteenth century, "class interests and national interests converged in ways that weakened the power of fathers over children and diminished the economic incentives to high fertility" (p. 150). Women were able to "engage in collective action in their own gender interests" (p. 150) although the feminist movement took some time to develop (Folbre traces this to 1856 in Britain - p. 148) and the impact of the movement did not have a widespread effect until the late nineteenth century and through the twentieth century (basically the last 100 years).

This historical example illustrates some of the ways in which structures are important and how the structures change over time - assets, rules, norms, and preferences all change as people adopt various strategies to deal with the structures and the changes in these structures. Collective action creates new structures and the combined individual actions of people constitute the structures - the norms and preferences that guide action.

C. Recent Changes in Fertility

By the 1930s, fertility rates in Europe and North America declined to the point where fertility and mortality were more or less equal. Since that time, fertility in Europe has fallen even more, so that in much of Europe fertility is so low that population decline could set in soon. In North America, there have been somewhat different trends, with a rise of fertility in the 1950s - the baby boom - and then a decline in fertility that began by the mid 1960s. By the 1990s, fertility levels had declined very considerably in North America, and are generally below the population replacement level.

The conventional explanations have all have played a role in this - mortality decline, urbanization, increased costs of children, and emphasis on quality over quantity. But Folbre's emphasis on changes in patriarchy and distribution of costs of reproduction should also be considered as important explanations. While Folbre argues that patriarchy has not been eliminated in contemporary society, there is no doubt that women and the feminist movement have considerably weakened many patriarchal controls. As Folbre notes, patriarchy generally weakens when child costs are greater, and this has certainly been the case in the last thirty years in North America. The feminist movement has made women more aware of who bears the costs of social reproduction, and women have attempted to socialize some of these costs (day care, child tax benefits) or shift some of these costs to men (more equitable distribution of family and household responsibilities).

In addition, the rapid expansion of jobs for women has led to a great increase in the opportunity cost of women staying in the home to care for young children. While women's wages still trail those of men, there has been an increase in the number of jobs and the wages for women, thus resulting in a dramatic increase in the income potential for women. Along with this has come the possibility of greater economic independence for women. This has led to changes in the decision making process, with women exercising much greater control over fertility decisions. The net result of this has been a sharp decline in fertility levels throughout North America.

Notes for March 12, 1998. Last edited on March 12, 1998.

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