New Study Links Lower Fertility Rates to Female Off-farm Employment in China

Cambridge Mass. — Women in China’s workforce have significantly lower fertility rates than those who are not employed. That is one finding in a new Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Working Paper co-authored by HKS Professor Richard Zeckhauser.

“Jobs and Kids: Female Employment and Fertility in China” synthesizes the analysis of data taken from the 2006 China Health and Nutrition Survey to determine how growing labor-force participation is affecting birth rates in the world’s most populous country.

“China is a particularly important place to study the relationship between women’s employment and fertility, given its rapid pace of economic development, enormous population, and controversial family planning policies,” the authors write.

Zeckhauser and co-authors Hai Fang (University of Colorado, Denver), Karen Eggleston (Stanford University) and John Rizzo (State University of New York, Stony Brook) sought to isolate the impact of rising female employment trends from that of China’s controversial policy which limits urban couples to one child, and most rural couples to no more than two children and no more than one son.

“Our preferred specification indicates that female employment reduces the preferred number of children by 0.35 on average, and the actual number of children by 0.50. Having a first child who is a son is associated with lower fertility, both preferred and actual,” the authors find.

The authors argue that the study has important implications for policymakers in Beijing.

“Given the Chinese government’s ongoing desire to curb population growth, the finding that female off-farm employment reduces fertility is noteworthy,” the authors conclude. “Encouraging greater rates of off-farm employment for women could substantially reduce fertility without requiring any of the punishments and penalties for childbearing that have earned China so much criticism. Further improvements in women’s education would complement pro-employment policies by increasing the productivity of female employment and multiplying its fertility-reducing effects.”

Richard Zeckhauser is the Frank P. Ramsey Professor of Political Economy. Much of his conceptual research examines possibilities for democratic, decentralized allocation procedures. Many of his policy investigations explore ways to promote the health of human beings, to help markets work more effectively, and to foster informed and appropriate choices by individuals and government agencies.

Dr. Hai Fang’s research has focused on health economics, health management, and health policy, and specific research topics include physician agency, managed care organizations, health disparities, obesity, and substance abuse. Dr. Fang has introduced the notion of physician-enabled demand, as recent organizational changes in the health care sector promote greater patient participation in their treatment decisions. How physicians respond to patient-initiated requests for treatment is an issue of considerable policy interest. Dr. Fang finds that physician-enabled demand increases with more competition under fee-for-service reimbursement, but decreases with greater competition under managed care.

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