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Dr. Virginia Deane Abernethy

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Virginia Deane Abernethy, M.B.A., Ph.D., eclectic* "Eclectic" describes better than any degree, book, or article the news commentary on this website. Its origin could well be history lessons absorbed at my first school, Northlands, the highly regarded British ... more


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Last Updated on:
November 16, 2016

Publication by Virginia Deane Abernethy


Fertility Decline No Mystery
Ethics and Environmental Politics [ESEP]
May 24, 2002


2002, 1–11 Published May 24
Resale or republication not permitted without written consent of the publisher 
© Inter-Research 2002 ·


Fertility decline; no mystery
Virginia Deane Abernethy* 
Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, 209 Oxford House, Nashville, Tennessee 37232-4245, USA


ABSTRACT: The economic opportunity hypothesis states that perceived shrinkage of opportunity discourages women or couples from embarking on marriage or reproduction. On the contrary, the sense that opportunity is expanding encourages couples to raise their family-size target. The hypothesis assumes that humans are genetically programmed to maximize successful reproduction by having more offspring when environmental/economic conditions appear favorable, but exercise restraint—waiting or limiting the total number of offspring—if the latter strategy promises greater longrun success.

KEY WORDS: Fertility rates · Population · Incentives · Perception · Reproduction


The March 8, 2002 UN Report (Crossette 2002, Francis
2002) on declining fertility rates makes pleasant
reading, especially because a New York Times’ summary
states that ‘The decline in birthrates in nations
where poverty and illiteracy are still widespread defies
almost all conventional wisdom. Planners once
argued—and some still do—that a falling birthrate
can only follow improved living standards and more
educational opportunities, not outrun them. It now
seems that women are not waiting for that day’
(Crossette 2002).
For women’s rights advocates the response is triumphant—
given any power at all to control their own
reproduction, women have opted for smaller family
size. For environmentalists the lower fertility rates are
a relief—fewer people means less pressure on the
population carrying capacity and less degradation of
natural resources. Only some professional demographers
are bemused; they have long maintained that a
decline in poverty and illiteracy are preconditions for
smaller family size, a hypothesis that is manifestly
For an anthropologist like myself, the UN Report is a
great vindication. Over several decades I have
explored the effects of economic opportunity (EO)
(Abernethy 1979, 1993), concluding that a sense of
expanding opportunity encourages people to raise
their family-size targets. Conversely, falling expectations
and the perception of heightened competition for
limited goods bring about reproductive and marital
caution. I call this the EO hypothesis.
Fertility rates are now falling almost worldwide
because maintaining a culturally defined, good standard
of living is becoming more difficult in most
environments. Despite over 1 trillion US dollars in
foreign aid given by the United States alone since
World War II (Poverty Lobby II 2002), and globalized
trade, increasing numbers live in poverty or must compete
more to stay in the middle class. ‘Most people in
Latin America, the Middle East and Central Asia are
poorer than at the cold war’s close, despite the fast economic
integration of the 1990s (Kahn & Weiner 2002).
In addition, a review finds that, ‘Infant mortality rates
deteriorated in large swaths of Africa... and in much of
the developing world, the number of people who lived
on less than $1 a day shot up over the last decade’
(Sengupta 2002)
In today’s poorer countries, clean fresh water is scarce
for a growing number of people. Worldwide, grain


production per capita has not risen since the mid-1980s,
and an enormous gap between the infant mortality rates
in developed and developing countries—the difference
between 8 and 67 deaths per 1000 respectively—persists
(Population Reference Bureau 2001).
Explosive population growth is a principal contributor
to many of these negative developments. Optimistically,
some would say the EO hypothesis implies that
runaway population growth is self-correcting in the
long run, because reproductive caution is triggered by
the tougher economic, social, and environmental
conditions associated with rapid population growth.
That ‘long run’ appears to have arrived. Can the title
of my paper published several years ago, ‘Population
dynamics: why we can sit back and watch fertility
fall,’(Abernethy 2000) be more explicit?
The EO hypothesis is a simple and comprehensive
explanation of declining fertility rates. It is equally
applicable in developed and less-developed countries,
and in urban or rural settings. But to say that it does not
disturb certain experts of the international development
cabal would be to ignore such comments as,
‘She’s a nut,’ and ‘Her ideas are ignored by the demographic
community. I’d say that’s justified.’ Both statements,
by well-known demographers, appeared in a
Wall Street Journal feature story on the EO hypothesis
(Zachary 1998).
This paper summarizes numerous published data
including findings from a prospective test. In addition,
the reader will find citations to demographic and
anthropological case studies that illustrate the hypothesis.
References, with one exception, are exact.



The economic collapse of former ‘Asian tigers’ (Hong
Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, The Philippines,
Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand) in late
summer, 1997, presented the opportunity for a
prospective test of the EO hypothesis. Abernethy predicted
(1998) that the tigers’ collapsing economies
would cause their fertility rates to decline at a faster
rate during the 1997 to 1999 interval than observed in
preceding 2 yr intervals. Fertility had been declining in
each of these countries for varying numbers of years
but with the collapse of the economies that decline was
expected to accelerate.
The 9 economies of the former Asian tigers are modern
in at least 1 primary sector of the society and, until 1997,
this sector was relatively affluent. The economies vary
greatly, however, in the pervasiveness of modernizing
influences. The Philippines might have been excluded
because it never achieved independent economic takeoff
and remained heavily reliant on the presence of US
naval bases for nearly a century, until the early 1990s.
Other observers would exclude Japan from the sample
because of the length of time that its economy has been
modernizing. Japan began to invest in technology and
education before the turn of the 20th century, and
modernized other facets of society immediately after
World War II. Taiwan and Hong Kong embarked on
extensive modernization within a decade of the ending
of World War II (Abernethy & Penaloza 2002).
Whatever their differences and pace of change,
some generalizations apply. By 1997, each country had
experienced improvements in standard of living, the
value of education was increasingly appreciated as the
high road to economic success, and the prospect of
entering the middle class was influencing an increasing
proportion of the population (Abernethy &
Penaloza 2002).
However, within a matter of months after late summer
1997, the 9 economic tigers faced collapsing asset
values including currency devaluation of up to 40%.
The downward spiral was initiated by a sharp devaluation
of the Thai baht and quickly spread. In Japan,
the unemployment rates in 1998 and 1999 rose to a
level higher than at any time since 1953. Personal
bankruptcies in 1999 were 50% higher than in 1997,
and a further sign of falling incomes was the decline in
Japanese retail sales from 1997 to 1999. In 1998, the
Japanese suicide rate was the highest ever recorded.
Contemplating an uncertain future, a majority of university
students expressed a preference for government
as opposed to private-sector employment (Abernethy
& Penaloza 2002).
The EO hypothesis suggests that adjustment to
uncertainty, unemployment, and the negative wealth
effect is likely to entail the derailment of marital and
reproductive plans. Further decline from already low
fertility rates in most Asian tiger economies seemed
possible. Under similarly difficult circumstances, fertility
rates in East Germany temporarily declined to a
level that, if maintained over women’s entire lifetimes,
would have led to an average completed family size of
as little as 0.6 children per woman (Conrad et al. 1996).



The predicted, significantly greater-than-trend fertility
decline in former tigers materialized. The fertility
rate by economy, in 2 yr intervals, is shown in Table 1.
Table 2 shows the percentage change in fertility rates,
also in 2 yr intervals. The relevant finding is that the decline
in the 1997 to 1999 interval is statistically significant,
being >6 times as great as the average of declines
in previous intervals(Abernethy & Penaloza 2002).

Abernethy: Fertility decline; no mystery

A comparison group of countries that experienced no
particular economic shock shows a random pattern of
fertility rates (See Tables 3 & 4).



Malawi’s first census in 1966 counted a population of
4 million. By 1995 it was 10 million. In recent years, the
annual rate of population growth has been 3.5%
(Kalipeni 1996).
Confronted with a rising population and limited
arable land, the 85% of Malawians who derive their
livelihood from subsistence farming have 3 options for
maintaining a viable ecological niche: (1) they can
work harder on existing holdings, activities known as
‘agricultural intensification’; (2) they can migrate to
available but less good, in fact, marginal lands; or
(3) they can limit family size to avoid adding to existing
pressure on the land.
Anthropologist Ezekiel Kalipeni suggests that the
hard work of agricultural intensification holds greatest
promise in the short term but cannot keep ahead of
population momentum. Migration to infertile marginal
lands occurs but is unattractive, which leaves only the
option of limiting family size. In comparison with other
sub-Saharan Africans, rural Malawians began treating
fertility control as a real choice relatively early.
Between 1977 and 1987, crude birth rates declined
from 48 to 41 births per 1000 persons in the population.
Kalipeni tested a number of traditional explanations
of the fertility decline but found no significant relationships
between the fertility rate and education, infant
mortality, or urbanization in either 1977 or 1987 data.
However, his 1987 regression model revealed a statistically
significant inverse relationship between the fertility
rate and population density (r = –0.40). That is,
the denser the population, the lower the fertility rate.
Drawing together all data, Kalipeni infers that land
hunger was the central stimulus in the onset of
Malawi’s fertility decline. He writes:
‘Correlation does not prove causality. Nevertheless,
variation in the rate at which fertility is declining
within regions suggests that land hunger does, indeed,
drive the more cautious approach to childbearing:
specifically, the fastest fertility decline is occurring in
the region of highest population density… Land is a
crucial commodity for survival since most of the people
are subsistence farmers… the strong negative relationship
between fertility and population density could be
due to the lack of resources to grow enough food to
feed a large family. It may also be an indication of
prolonged out-migration of males to the few cities and
to other parts of the country to seek wage employment.…
based on the tentative analysis shown above,
it can be concluded that areas that are experiencing
intense environmental pressure are also
beginning to go through a fertility transition’
(Kalipeni 1996, p. 299–300).



The beginning and course of population cycles
are sometimes shrouded in history. One may
conclude, nevertheless, that Malawian and
Rwandan stories illustrate the effects of contrasting
expectations. Relatively early, the Malawians
accepted a theory of limits on arable land.
Rwandans farmers, on the contrary, were
encouraged to believe that the settlement of
fertile new lands would be a continuing option.

Country Year
1991 1993 1995 1997 1999
Hong Kong 1.2 1.2 1.2 1.2a 1.1
Indonesia 3.03 3.03 2.8 2.9 2.8
Japan 1.5 1.5 1.5 1.5 1.4
Malaysia 4.1 3.6 3.3 3.3 3.2
Philippines 4.1 4.1 4.1 4.1 3.7
Singapore 1.8 1.7 1.8 1.7 1.6
South Korea 1.6 1.6 1.6 1.7 1.6
Taiwan 1.7 1.6 1.8 1.8 1.4
Thailand 2.2 2.4 2.2 1.9 2.0

aEstimated. Hong Kong’s changed administrative status—
reversion to Mainland China—is responsible for gap in
Population Reference Bureau data
Table 1. The total fertility rate, by economy, by year. Source:
Population Reference Bureau (1991 to 1999)
Country 2 yr interval
1991–1993 1993–1995 1995–1997 1997–1999
(%) (%) (%) (%)
Hong Kong 0.0 0.0 0.0 –8.3
Indonesia 0.0 –7.6 3.6 –3.4
Japan 0.0 0.0 0.0 –6.7
Malaysia –12.2 –8.3 0.0 –3.0
Philippines 0.0 0.0 0.0 –9.8
Singapore –5.6 5.9 –5.6 –5.9
South Korea 0.0 0.0 6.3 –5.9
Taiwan –5.9 12.5 0.0 –22.2
Thailand 9.1 –8.3 –13.6 5.3
Average decline –1.6 –0.6 –1.0 –6.6
Table 2. Percentage change in total fertility rate, by economy, in
2 yr intervals
ESEP 2002, 1–11

The Belgian and its successor indigenous government
(beginning in 1962) recognized growing population
pressure but, avers John May, projected an image
of expansionary opportunity until the 1980s. The governments’
principal responses to population pressure
after World War II were agricultural intensification and
‘extensification.’ Extensification entailed dispersing
the Rwandan population to empty paysannats within
Rwanda and to less congested territories in neighboring
countries (Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of
Congo, Uganda, and Tanzania). These strategies,
especially relocation, became ‘by far the most important
policy response ever adopted in Rwanda to cope
with rapid population growth’ (May 1995, p. 329).
May speculates that agricultural extensification created
a frontier mentality—an image of opportunity—
and that these expansive expectations may have raised
the fertility rate: ‘In fact, the relative availability of land
during the agricultural colonization and intensification
processes might have been conducive to higher fertility
levels’ (May 1995, p. 329).
The mid-1980s fertility rate was 8.5 births per
woman. By the 1990s, Rwanda was ‘the most
densely populated country of continental sub-
Saharan Africa’ (May 1995, p. 333). ‘Largely
because of extremely high fertility,’ states
demographer Leon Bouvier, ‘the population
quadrupled between 1950 and 1993’ (Bouvier
1995, p. 1).
Belatedly in 1981, donors of international aid
forced the initiation of a national family planning
effort. Fertility began to decline in 1985
and within 5 yr arrived at 6.2, a fall of more than
2 children per woman.
One could easily infer that offering women
modern contraception caused the fertility
decline. That, nevertheless, would overlook a
contrary fact: by 1992, only 12.9% of married,
reproductive-age women used modern contraceptive
methods. Later marriage, May observes,
was the most visible contributor to the
Rwandan fertility decline (May 1995).
Delayed marriage is just one of many behavioral
adjustments that can be adopted independently
of contraception in any society—rural or
not, deeply illiterate or not, patriarchal or not.
Delayed marriage in response to adversity may
be a pan-African or even pan-human response.
Yoruba villagers in Nigeria explicitly ascribe
decisions to delay marriage in ‘hard economic
times’ (Caldwell et al. 1992, p. 237). Nineteenth
century Irish, well before the 1845 famine,
responded to land hunger with very late marriage
or celibacy in a very large fraction of the
population (Connell 1968).
John May reasons that Rwandans began to delay
marriage by the late 1980s because the incentive structure
had changed. Gains from intensifying agriculture
had run their course. Land productivity decreased as
marginal soils brought into cultivation 20 yr earlier
steadily deteriorated. Droughts appeared to worsen,
and the competition among alternate uses for land (e.g.
cultivation, pastureland, forests, and domestic woodlots
for fuel) intensified. Political realities ruled out further
population dispersal, so family plots were subdivided
to accommodate each maturing generation.
Many farms reached a size that barely supports a family.
By 1984, 57% of family holdings were less than 1
hectare in size (May 1995).
The shrinking opportunity structure apparently
forced itself into Rwandan calculations by the mid-1980s
and accounted for delayed marriages and first births.
The new availability of contraception no doubt helped
by making it easier to space and limit births within marriage.
However, motivation is key. In the absence of couples’
wanting to limit family size, both a World Bank-


Region Year


Country 1991 1993 1995 1997 1999

Central America


Costa Rica 3.3 3.3 3.1 2.8 2.7
El Salvador 4.6 4.6 3.8 3.9 3.6
Guatemala 5.3 5.2 5.4 5.1 5.1
Honduras 5.3 5.6 5.2 5.2 4.4
Mexico 3.8 3.4 3.1 3.1 3.0
Nicaragua 5.5 4.8 4.6 4.6 3.9
Panama 3.0 2.9 3.0 2.8 2.7



Cuba 1.9 1.8 1.8 1.5 1.6
Dominican Republic 3.6 3.3 3.3 3.2 3.2
Haiti 6.4 6.0 4.8 4.8 4.8
Jamaica 2.6 2.4 2.4 2.6 2.8
Puerto Rico 2.2 2.2 2.2 2.1 2.1
Trinidad & Tobago 2.4 2.4 2.7 2.0 1.7

South America


Argentina 2.7 2.9 2.8 2.8 2.6
Bolivia 4.9 4.9 4.8 4.8 4.2
Brazil 3.3 2.6 2.9 2.5 2.3
Chile 2.7 2.6 2.5 2.4 2.4
Colombia 2.9 2.8 2.7 3.0 3.0
Ecuador 3.8 3.8 3.5 3.6 3.3
Paraguay 4.5 4.4 4.3 4.5 4.4
Peru 4.0 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5
Uruguay 2.4 2.5 2.3 2.3 2.4
Venezuela 3.3 3.7 3.6 3.1 2.9
Table 3. Total fertility rate by country by year: Latin America. Fourteen
countries with populations of less than 1 million persons were
excluded from the sample (Antigua, Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados,
Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guadaloupe, Guyana, Martinique,
Netherland Antilles, St Kitts-Nevis, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and the
Grenadines, and Suriname). Source: Population Reference Bureau
(1991 to 1999)
Abernethy: Fertility decline; no mystery

sponsored study (Pritchett 1994) and the literature underlying
the EO hypothesis show that contraceptive programs
are just marginally effective (Abernethy 1979).
May concludes that different government policies
might have led to fertility decline sooner. The dispersal
of the population through out-migration was a principal
policy that shielded the people from the ecological
realities of carrying capacity and prevented a timely
response (May 1995).

South Asia


Timothy Dyson’s analysis of a century of major
famines in the Indian sub-continent connects the fertility
rate to fluctuations in the natural and socioeconomic
environment. He shows that small price
increases for staple foods—typically the first response
to a drought and a warning of possible famine—
resulted in significantly lower fertility rates.
The mechanism was a series of behavioral
adjustments. Dowries, for example, are
more difficult to accumulate when crops are
failing, so marriages and therefore births
were delayed. Reproduction within marriage
was also often delayed because married
men left home to seek work in less
affected areas.
Such marital and reproductive responses
to price-mediated signs of shortage, coming
well before the full force of famine materialized,
effectively reduced the total fertility
rate because a birth delayed is often a birth
avoided. As positive factors, these adaptations
seem also to have largely forestalled
significant, famine-induced increases in
mortality. Mortality appeared actually to fall
among reproductive-age women, perhaps
because of lower exposure to the perils of
childbirth (Dyson 1991a,b).



The Moroccan fertility rate rose in the
wake of independence, in 1957, strong
world prices for a principal export (phosphates),
and the government’s use of export
profits to subsidize social programs. The
total fertility rate (TFR) was approximately 7
children per woman in 1960, and by 1973
had risen to 7.4 (Courbages 1995).
In the late months of 1974 and 1975,
watershed years, phosphate prices collapsed.
Declining revenues forced the government
to both raise personal income taxes and scale
back subsidies for health care, education, food subsidies,
and housing. The new role of government was
not as giver but as taker of incomes, and it drove a
renewed imperative: family self-reliance. Families cast
back onto their own resources sought to satisfy basic
needs as well as recently acquired tastes (for example,
education and healthcare). Many women entered the
workforce for the first time in order to supplement
family income.
Youssef Courbages suggests that these unanticipated
pressures on family lifestyles were the major
cause of a fertility decline beginning in 1975. ‘The sudden
reversal of the economic and fiscal condition of
Moroccan households is related to the sharp drop in
fertility, which diminished by 20%, from 7.3 to 5.9 children
per woman in just four years’ (Courbages 1995, p.
89). Socioeconomic pressures have been unrelenting
and, by 1997, the Moroccan TFR was 3.3 children per


Region 2 yr interval


Country 1991–1993 1993–1995 1995–1997 1997–1999
(%) (%) (%) (%)

Central America


Costa Rica 0.0 –6.1 –9.7 –3.6
El Salvador 0.0 –17.4 2.6 –7.7
Guatemala –1.9 3.8 –5.6 0.0
Honduras 5.7 –7.1 0.0 –15.4
Mexico –10.5 –8.8 0.0 –3.2
Nicaragua –12.7 –4.2 0.0 –15.2
Panama –3.3 3.4 –6.7 –3.6
Average Decline –3.2 –5.2 –2.8 –7.0



Cuba –5.3 0.0 –16.7 6.7
Dominican Republic –8.3 0.0 –3.0 0.0
Haiti –6.3 –20.0 0.0 0.0
Jamaica –7.7 0.0 8.3 7.7
Puerto Rico 0.0 0.0 –4.5 0.0
Trinidad & Tobago 0.0 12.5 –25.9 –15.0
Average Decline –4.6 –1.3 –7.0 –0.1

South America


Argentina 7.4 –3.4 0.0 –7.1
Bolivia 0.0 –2.0 0.0 –12.5
Brazil –21.2 11.5 –13.8 –8.0
Chile –3.7 –3.8 –4.0 0.0
Colombia –3.4 –3.6 11.1 0.0
Ecuador 0.0 –7.9 2.9 –8.3
Paraguay –2.2 –2.3 4.7 –2.2
Peru –12.5 0.0 0.0 0.0
Uruguay 4.2 –8.0 0.0 4.3
Venezuela 12.1 –2.7 –13.9 –6.5
Average decline –1.9 –2.2 –1.3 –4.0
Average decline –3 –4 –3.2 –3.9
in Latin America
Table 4. Percentage change in total fertility rate, by country, in
2 yr intervals: Latin America
ESEP 2002, 1–11



Among all other Muslim countries, Egypt has the
longest history of concern over its expanding population.
Coinciding with consolidation of President Gamal
Abdel Nasser’s socialist regime in the 1960s, family
planning advocates expanded their political base,
programs became active and, by 1970, fertility had
declined from 6.7 children per woman to a new low
of 5.0.
Philippe Fargues nevertheless rejects the conclusion
that programmatic family planning efforts caused the
fertility decline. He cites, instead, the economic recession
through which Egypt floundered until the death of
President Nasser in 1970 (Fargues 1997).
Nasser left a political void that soon was filled by the
economically progressive Anwar el-Sadat (1973 to
1985). President El Sadat encouraged domestic entrepreneurial
activity as well as emigration, welcomed
foreign investment, and signed a formal peace treaty
with Israel (the 1981 Camp David accords) guaranteed
by the United States.
The Camp David accords promise Egypt 2.5 billion
US dollars in aid, annually, from the United States.
This aid supplemented by oil revenues and fees for foreign
shipping through the Suez Canal allowed serious
expansion of the government’s education, healthcare,
food, and housing subsidies and other social programs
that benefited broad segments of society. Such freshening
breezes from windfall government revenues
entailed, ‘At the household level… a substantial
increase in the standard of living.’ Government
largesse was augmented by remittances from overseas
Egyptians that flowed directly to relatives, which by
the early 1980s amounted to 5 billion US dollars a year,
the equivalent of 90% of Egypt’s annual export revenues
(Fargues 1995, p. 183, l997). The broadly distributed
new wealth was enjoyed nationwide.
Fargues observes that ‘Now better off, families could
more easily satisfy an unchanged desire to have
numerous offspring.’ The fertility rate did indeed peak,
rising 30% from 1970 to a high of 6.5 births per woman
in the early 1980s (Fargues 1997, p. 124).
An economic reversal was evident by the mid-1980s.
Indeed, the standard of living noticeably eroded
because falling oil prices, population growth, and
tougher World Bank and other international lending
criteria forced rollbacks in government spending.
President Hosni Mubarak, successor to the murdered
El Sadat, had no choice but to scale back social programs
and subsidies at the same time that the historically
large population was experiencing massive
In addition, Egypt was no longer self-sufficient in
food production. Much of Egypt’s ‘breadbasket’ outside
of Cairo and along the Nile had been converted
from agricultural to commercial and residential use.
Shortage of water as well as arable land, and
increasing dependence on imported food, contributed
to the sense of foreboding that comes with growing
unemployment and underemployment (Courbages
1995, Fargues 1995, 1997). Riots erupted when the
government announced a higher price (lower subsidy)
on bread. The price increase on bread was
rescinded, but the government’s next moves were
the introduction of a larger, higher-priced loaf
followed by erosion of the size of both loaves, until
the original loaf, price unchanged, was materially
Seen in 1987, Cairo’s schools had become so
crowded that children were divided into 3 shifts and
attended classes for only a few hours daily. Port Said
was able to hold the line at just 2 shifts. Everywhere,
the relative scarcity of more coveted professional jobs
forced job-sharing: school-teachers taught 1 shift and
made up their incomes as waiters or bazaar peddlers,
and university professors drove cabs. Low wages
forced many into homecrafts to be peddled on street
corners, some earned tips from doling out single sheets
of toilet paper in public-access bathrooms, and tens of
thousands made their living from rag-picking in the
smoldering garbage dumps that ring Cairo. By 1988
the government was unable to honor its pledge of a job
for every university graduate, and offered a grant title
to a 5-acre desert tract as a substitute for the job.
Such indicators (Abernethy 1993) presaged a renewed,
rapid decline in the fertility rate. The Egyptian
TFR declined from 5.0 children per woman in 1988 to
3.6 by 1997 (Population Reference Bureau 1997). The
decline appeared to accelerate at the same time that
ground was being lost in measures of social welfare,
including literacy. Whereas 60% percent of women
were literate in the late 1970s, the total adult literacy
rate in 1997 was just 50%.
Trends in socioeconomic indicators and the fertilityrate
support Fargues’ contention that, ‘Egypt’s demographic
transition has been driven not so much by
economic development as by its hiccups’ (Fargues
1997, p. 131).

Morocco compared to Egypt and other Muslim,
Arab Countries


Youssef Courbages (1995) and Philippe Fargues
(1995, 1997) concur that fertility rates in middle-eastern
Muslim countries do not correlate with the modernization
variables that many demographers see as
fundamental. Reductions in infant mortality, better
healthcare and education—especially for women—

Abernethy: Fertility decline; no mystery

and rising standards of living are not even correlated,
and clearly are not causally related to declining fertility
rates (Fargues 1995, 1997).
For example, modernization indicators in Morocco
compared to other Muslim, Arab countries would not
have predicted that Morocco would attain one of the
first sustained fertility rate declines in the region.
Moroccan women lagged others in both literacy and
achieved educational level. Fewer than 40% of Moroccan
women of childbearing age were literate when its
fertility decline began, compared to ~60% in Egypt.
Moreover, within each social stratum, Egyptian
women were attaining a higher educational level
(Courbages 1995). By the late 1970s, nevertheless,
Moroccan fertility was lower than Egyptian:
‘No one could have foreseen the slower fertility
decline in Egypt and its relative acceleration in
Morocco, because the evidence suggested exactly the
opposite…. Egyptian economic growth has been
particularly rapid without bringing down fertility,
while in Morocco slow economic growth and a
decrease in fertility have gone hand in hand’
(Courbages 1995, p. 85).
The comparison is still more striking with rich
countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where all
sectors of the population have had access to education,
excellent healthcare and other social subsidies
for many decades. Arab oil kingdoms have much
lower infant mortality and proportionately more literate
and better -educated women than Morocco but
their fertility rates remained at very high levels until
approximately 1990 (Courbages 1995).
Only in the past decade has extremely rapid population
growth begun to overtake mid-east oil wealth. Per
capita income and subsidies have declined, young men
are seeking but not always finding employment and, at
last, Iranian, Saudi, and Kuwaiti fertility rates have
begun to fall.

The Malaysian example


Before withdrawing from their Malaysian colony in
1957, the British instituted democratic reforms that
left the more numerous Malays politically dominant.
In addition, Great Britain affirmed the special position
of the Malays, ‘reserving for them four-fifths of all
jobs in the civil service, three-fourths of university
scholarships and training programs offered by the
federal government, and a majority of license permits
from the operation of trade and business’ (Govindasamy
& DaVanzo 1992, p. 247).
The Malays gained at the expense of the Indians
and Chinese—Malaysia’s 2 other principal ethnic
groups. As the Malays consolidated their economic
and cultural advantage, both Indians and Chinese
were progressively discriminated against in access to
education, jobs, and public office. Many Chinese fled
to Singapore after race riots and a switch in the official
language from English to Malay in the early
1960s. In 1965, Singapore became a separate political
Demographers Govindasamy & DaVanzo trace the
culmination of Malay bureaucratic and legislative
power through the passage of a 20 yr blueprint for
development (1971 to 1990) known as the New Economic
Policy. By 1983, ‘the Malay language was used
as a medium of instruction at all levels of education...’
(Govindasamy & DaVanzo 1992, p. 248) and competency
in Malay became a criterion for graduation and
civil service jobs.
The reversals in Malaysia’s power structure after
1957 foretold demographic trends. In 1957, when
Malays still were the least educated and poorest as
well as the most rural population, they had the lowest
total fertility rate. When they acquired political power
at the expense of other ethnic groups, the pattern
Indian and Chinese fertility rates declined, respectively,
from nearly 8 children per woman in 1957 to
about 3 in 1987, and from more than 7 to 2.5 children
per woman over the same period. The Malay fertility
rate, in contrast, increased by 12%. Thus, by 1987,
after the Malays had consolidated power, their fertility
rate stood ‘twice as high as the Chinese and 63%
higher than that of the Indians’ (Govindasamy &
DaVanzo 1992, p. 243). Differential ethnic fertility has
been persistent except for a brief period when trend
lines crossed. By 1988, the Malays were a solid majority
of the population.
Persistently high Malay fertility—despite increasing
urbanization, economic expansion, and better education
and healthcare—has been variously attributed to
the pronatalism of Muslim religious forces as well as,
according to Govindasamy & DaVanzo (1992), to the
reversal in the opportunity structures, particularly after
1971. They offer the interpretation that the differential
access to political and economic advantage ‘is consistent
with the arrested decline in total fertility rates for
Malays in the mid-1970s, in the face of continuing
decline for Chinese and Indians’ (Govindasamy &
DaVanzo 1992, p. 250).
Differential fertility among groups which gain (or
lose) access to political levers and the spoils of victory
may be a common phenomenon. Shifting political
arrangements offer a promising setting in which to test
the fertility opportunity model.

ESEP 2002, 1–11



A boom and bust psychology has long been associated
with Peru’s exports of natural resources. Peru
became a prosperous exporter of guano for fertilizer in
the 1850s, but the boom psychology was dampened by
timely recognition of the limited nature of the resource.
By the 1940s, guano mining was being managed frugally,
with exports limited to the equivalent of the
255 000 tons of guano annually, the average amount
To supplement guano, President Manuel Odria,
newly elected in 1948, began encouraging the development
of anchoveta exports. Anchovetas appeared
inexhaustible and Peru again prospered from fishing
and associated industries. The growth phase of anchoveta
fishing lasted for over a decade, and harvests
remained strong until the El Niño Southern Oscillation
(ENSO) event of 1972–73 decimated the haul (Pauly &
Tsukayama 1987, Golnaraghi & Kaul 1995).
Beginning around 1972, the anchoveta industry and
the Peruvian economy went into steep decline, as
described in the August 1995 issue of The Economist.
Successive socialist governments nationalized key
food-producing sectors including fishing, with disastrous
results for productivity. Natural disasters such as
drought and recurrent ENSO events further undermined
yields. Worsening hyperinflation and unemployment
contributed to popular support for insurgent
revolutionary groups that ultimately threatened Peru’s
political as well as economic viability. The terrorist
force, El Sendero Luminoso, appeared on the verge of
destabilizing Lima until reigned in by President
Alberto Fujimori after his election in August 1990.
With these facts in hand as of February 1995, I
expected that the fast-growing anchoveta industry
would have spurred fertility right up to the 1972–73
episode of El Niño but that subsequent to this natural
event and to political developments, fertility rates
would decline. I asked several demographers for help
in locating Peruvian fertility statistics. Most helpfully,
John F. May of the Futures Group (Washington, DC)
unearthed a paper from the Peruvian Instituto de Estudios
en Población y Desarrollo.
As expected, the fertility rate did rise following the
growth period of anchoveta fishing and its supporting
industry. Whereas from 1876 through the early 1940s,
Peru’s total fertility rate remained in the range of 5.6 to
5.8 children per woman (‘the fecundity appears to be
more or less constant’), it then rose by more than one
child per woman, to 6.85 (‘by 1950…it arrived at 6.85
children per woman’; Montenegro & de Muente 1990,
p. 70–71).
Historically high levels of fertility were maintained
for some 15 yr after 1950. Then, coinciding with the
plateau of the anchoveta industry, a slow decline
began. The fertility decline accelerated after the
ENSO-related fishery collapse in 1972. Tracking the
economy, the TFR still hovered at 6.85 children per
woman in 1965, and declined to 6.56 by 1970, 6.00 by
1975, 5.38 by 1980, and 4.59 by 1985 (Montenegro
1990). The 1995 Population Data Sheet of the Population
Reference Bureau shows Peru with a fertility rate
of 3.5 children per woman (Population Reference
The EO hypothesis accounts for oscillations in Peru’s
fertility rate: profits and employment in the anchoveta
industry carried fertility up then down. This, however,
is not the interpretation put upon the data by Peruvian
demographers Montenegro & de Muente. They suggest
that women’s better health and survival rates
account for the fertility increase in 1950, and that
classic modernization variables caused the post-1965
decline (Montenegro & de Muente 1990, p. 70–71).
But congruent with the EO hypothesis, Ferrando &
Aramburu (1996) explain the fertility decline by way
of varying economic prospects. They write, ‘…even
though the process of economic and cultural modernization
created favourable (sic) conditions for the
beginning of the decline, it was the economic crisis
that accelerated the process, causing it to extend to the
lower classes in both urban and rural areas in the
1970s.’ They cite structural conditions in Peruvian
society, first the great and growing inequalities and,
second, the ‘central’ factor which is ‘the profound and
prolonged economic crisis suffered by Peru, which
continues with variable intensity and has become more
acute in the past 2 yr.

The United States


Demographic studies of the United States span the
earliest English settlements to the present. Several
points are significant:
First, colonists in the New World—whether Roman
Catholic French in Quebec or English Protestants in
New England—averaged much higher fertility rates
than were usual in the societies from which they came.
The colonists’ high rates have been attributed to seemingly
boundless natural resources which could absorb
almost any amount of labor and, indeed, could not be
transformed into wealth without human labor.
Second, the transition from the frontier to established
agricultural community meant that free land
vanished and good land became expensive. Land
prices became an obstacle to setting up families on
farms of the expected size and quality, delaying

Abernethy: Fertility decline; no mystery

marriage. Economist Richard Easterlin shows that
denser settlement, with or without industrialization,
was linked to declining fertility (Easterlin 1971, 1976).
Third, economic cycles are superimposed on other
factors almost from the beginning of colonial settlement.
For example, prosperity in Concord, an offshoot
of the Massachusetts Bay colony settled by Puritans in
1630, varied with earnings from lumber and agricultural
exports. The export trade relied upon backloading,
the return trip of ships that had brought new
colonists, as well as on strong demand for raw products
in England.
The first hiatus in Concord’s export trade occurred
around 1642 when Puritans temporarily ceased immigrating
to the colony, so no ships were available to
carry back lumber and other colonial products. Subsequent
interruptions in revenue from exports followed
economic recessions and collapsing demand in England.
Each dislocation in the colony’s export market,
specifically 1642, the 1680s, the 1740s and the 1790s,
affected family size. Political scientist Berry (1996) observes
that, in every case, the contracting export market
was followed by decline in the fertility rate.
Easterlin (1962) traces the later history of the
colonies and the United States, showing how the
domestic economy drove fertility rates. For example,
the 1920 break in farm prices followed by the 1929 to
1939 Great Depression was reflected in declining fertility
first in rural and then in urban areas.
The economy revived during World War II and, particularly
after the war, was characterized by low inflation,
scientific and technological innovation, growth in
labor productivity, and a labor force that was sufficiently
small and stable to drive up entry-level wages
and accelerate promotions. Easterlin (1962) concludes
that the expansive opportunities available to (young)
entry-level workers account for the rapid increase in
family formation and family size that became known as
the 1947 to 1962 baby boom.
Not to belabor the contrast, but US fertility rates
declined in the 1930s, when educational opportunity,
wealth, and infant mortality indexes were at depression-
era levels. However, the fertility rate was high in
the 1950s and early 1960s, when young families benefited
from favorable educational and employment
opportunities and national health statistics looked better
than ever. The baby boom came along when
prospects—relative to families’ wants, life experiences,
and expectations—were very bright.
Fertility drifted lower during the 1960s as after-tax,
inflation-adjusted income failed to rise at the pace to
which families had become accustomed. The 1973–74
oil shock began the ‘quiet depression,’ with productivity
and wage increases much below those of the previous
3 decades. Fertility followed economic trends,
declining to 1.7 children per woman in 1976 (Macunovich
& Easterlin 1990).
The fertility rate of native-born Americans as the US
enters the 21st century is 1.9 children per woman,
which is below replacement level. At least 2 forces
seem responsible. First, consumerism puts the goal of
acquiring things into competition with the value of
extra children, both because of the time value of childrearing
and the actual expense associated with raising
children in the United States (Macunovich & Easterlin
1990). Second, earnings have deteriorated for men,
especially for men who have entered the labor market
since the early 1980s and who, if prospects were better,
might feel more inclined to assume the responsibility
of marriage and a family.
Rapid growth in the supply of labor goes far to
explain declining wages. Historically, rapid growth in
the labor supply leads to decline in the value of labor,
that is, to workers being obliged to accept lower wages
and less desirable conditions (Lee 1980, Social security
and the future of US fertility 1997). Since ~1980,
several factors including mass immigration have been
a driving force behind rapid and continuing expansion
in the labor supply and significantly negative effects
for workers (Borjas et al. 1996).
A study by the liberal-leaning Russell Sage Foundation
(Bernhardt 2002) finds that 90% of young white
male workers can expect to have lower lifetime wage
growth than the previous generation. A reviewer cites
the 4 sociologist and statistician authors’ conclusion
that the ‘change is significant and permanent, comprising
‘a massive downshift in earnings standards’
(Roberts 2002, available at
low_wage.htm). The fertility rate of this sector of
native-born Americans will almost certainly remain
below replacement level so long as their disadvantage
in the labor market—relative to their expectations
and, perhaps, relative to other groups—persists.
Thus, both consumerism and competition in the
labor market heighten the sense that acquisition of
desirable, limited goods is an unremitting struggle.
The EO hypothesis suggests that this perception, or
worldview, makes people cautious in embarking on
marriage and childbearing.
Persuaded by history, US governmemt’s the Advisory
Council on Social Security has generalized to the
future. Their 1994–95 Report, exerpted in the journal
Population and Development Review, argues that low
fertility results in a small birth cohort whose members
are likely to encounter ample job opportunities relative
to their number, will command high wages, see rapid
career advancement and, therefore, have relatively
large families (Social Security and the Future of US
Fertility 1997).

ESEP 2002, 1–11

The Advisory Council reckon without the effect of
mass immigration and immigrants’ large average family
size. Although the fertility rate of native-born
Americans remains at about 1.9 children per woman,
the total fertility rate of the United States had risen to
replacement level, 2.1 births per woman, by 2000,
because it blends native-born rates with the higher
rates of the foreign-born.
Economic immigrants in the United States usually encounter
conditions better than those left behind, so their
perceptions of opportunity may be expected to differ
materially from those of native-born Americans. Although
less than 10% of the population, the foreignborn
already in 1994 accounted for 18% of all US births
(Ventura et al. 1996), proportions that have since risen.



These brief histories link economic and fertility variables.
Single society vignettes, comparisons between
countries, and cyclic patterns over time as well as one
prospective, statistical test support the EO hypothesis.
Much data is available, has been collected in previous
publications, or becomes available on an almost daily
Conditions for experiments in nature arise occasionally
and fortuitously (but not fortunately). For example,
the catastrophic economic collapse in Argentina—
which assumed critical proportions beginning in
December 2001—suggests that a sharp decline in the
fertility rate will occur soon. Pregnancies last 9 mo, so
the fertility decline should be fully manifest by 2003.
The Population Reference Bureau will probably publish
the 2003 figures by approximately midyear, 2004.
Prospective tests require patience.
How many illustrations and statistical tests constitute
proof of a scientific proposition? Outside of mathematics,
perhaps nothing is ever proved because science
operates, famously, through putting its hypotheses in
jeopardy. Social science hypotheses are perhaps
hardest to prove because only trivialities can be tested
under controlled laboratory conditions. Theories about
important relationships usually await testing through
opportune circumstances that arise in nature, or by an
accumulation of examples that almost always allow for
alternate explanation. The EO hypothesis is easily
mired in such objections.
Nevertheless, readers who delay marriage or plan
their own families with one eye on a budget may easily
absorb the EO hypothesis because it seems like
common sense. Others, whose family history include
suffering through the Great Depression and, perhaps,
whispered tales of an aunt who aborted a third or
fourth pregnancy, acknowledge that small families are
imposed by a sense of limited resources, whereas
larger families would be wanted if their means of support
were no object. Finally, biologists who recognize a
common, large-animal-species pattern of adjusting
fertility to available resources tend to accept the
hypothesis as a true account of reality.
The hypothesis has its roots in biology, anthropology,
economics, and psychology. The incentive structure
and the innate motive to maximize one’s chances for
successful reproduction are assumed to underlie the
relationship between perception of economic prospects
and fertility.
The EO hypothesis holds that a sense of contracting
opportunity encourages a cautious approach to marriage
and reproduction whereas the perception of
expanding opportunity allows people to raise family
size targets. Mechanisms associated with small family
size include delaying marriage or interrupting marital
relations, abstinence before or within marriage, or protected
sex. Social, cultural, and behavioral adaptations
as well as intentional contraception can limit childbearing.
The EO hypothesis, the women’s empowerment
lobby, and the ‘just provide contraception’ school do
not have mutually exclusive explanations. The questions
of why women want fewer children than most
currently have, and how avoiding pregnancy can be
made easier, link these perspectives to the EO hypothesis.
In fact, women today want fewer children because
raising children in a culturally acceptable manner is
hard and possibly getting harder. Depending upon
gender roles and family structure, women may feel the
constraints earlier and more acutely than men. Easily
used contraception is clearly helpful in avoiding pregnancy
where privacy, stability, and hygienic conditions
are in short supply.
The implication of the EO hypothesis is that most
humanitarian aid and refugee policies are selfdefeating
because they neutralize the subtle, or direr,
signals of economic downsizing and resource scarcity
that ordinarily lead to reproductive caution. That is,
large-scale international interventions are unlikely to
help and may harm. Exceptions are assistance with
family planning and micro-loans that link small
amounts of start-up capital to large measures of selfhelp.
The latter types of assistance tend to be offered
by non-governmental organizations in small scale,
face-to-face settings.
Thus, the EO hypothesis does not militate against
helping. But it is a warning that assistance may change
the incentive structure. If generosity creates the
impression that wealth and assistance are limitless, or
even sufficient, the risk of succumbing to the lure of
a(nother) child is increased.

Abernethy: Fertility decline; no mystery

The EO hypothesis can also guide policy if encouraging
reproduction is the objective. They key is
improving the opportunity structure for those about to
enter young adulthood. Ample entry-level jobs, a
climate offering rapid advancement, salaries sufficient
to allow one earner to support a family, and low
enough interest rates to encourage first-time home
ownership promote marriage and childbearing. Governments
may need to end immigration in order to protect
jobs for native-born citizens, protect industry so
that jobs do not go off-shore to low-wage producers,
and use tax incentives for businesses that raises productivity
through technological innovation. It is not so
hard to make babies.
Humans are genetically programmed to seek reproductive
success. Restraint is the hard part, needing to
be strengthened by fear of consequences.

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Editorial responsibility: John Cairns Jr.,
Blacksburg, Virginia, USA
Submitted: March 15, 2002; Accepted: May 12, 2002
Proofs received from author(s): May 23, 2002
Published on the web: May 24, 2002


2007 Copyrights, Virginia Deane Abernethy.
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