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
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
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
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 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.
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
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
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
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
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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