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Are Babies Consumer Durables?: A Critique of the Economic Theory of Reproductive Motivation

Judith Blake
Population Studies
Vol. 22, No. 1 (Mar., 1968), pp. 5-25
DOI: 10.2307/2173350
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2173350
Page Count: 21
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Are Babies Consumer Durables?: A Critique of the Economic Theory of Reproductive Motivation
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Abstract

An economist (Gary Becker) argues that the economic theory of demand for consumer durables can be applied to the analysis of reproductive motivation. Since, he says, under modern conditions, the desire for children is analogous to the demand for consumer durables, it is positively related to income and actual fertility will be so related when all classes have equal access to contraception. This thesis is subject to criticism both on theoretical and empirical grounds. Theoretically, it overlooks the crucial importance, for family-size goals, of the institutional context in which reproduction takes place. When one takes this context into account, one sees that the quantity income elasticity of family-size goals posited by Becker is a false trail. It is evident that although credit limits the acquisition of consumer durables, no similar mechanism operates to adjust family size to income. The analogy with consumer durables is inapplicable because parents are producers as well as consumers of children, children are not mere instrumentalities that can be bought and sold, and the `utilities' involved in having them (and, hence, `tastes' for children) are built into the institutional structure of reproduction. In addition, not only are the direct costs of offspring positively related to class, but the indirect costs as well (overlooked by Becker) are higher for the well-to-do. Given the deficiencies of the theory, it is not surprising that empirical evidence also casts doubt on Becker's thesis. The instances cited by Becker himself can be shown to be either questionable or spurious. In addition, data on family-size ideals from 13 polls and surveys in the United States, using national samples of whites collected over a thirty-year period, show either identical or inverse relationships with income levels among non-Catholics. A positive relation with income is associated only with some powerful, pro-natalist non-economic influence, such as Catholicism.

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