Esther Duflo at the Pop Council

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Yesterday, we had the opportunity to go to the Population Council’s New York office for a Poverty, Gender and Youth Seminar with Esther Duflo from MIT. As a coauthor (along with Abhijit V. Banerjee) of the recently published Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, Duflo discussed the chapter of the book that focuses on population and family. She argued that many of the family planning and population policies internationally and at the country level are based on two assumptions, for which, the evidence is perhaps not as strong as we think.


1. Big families are bad
Because of the easy to see association between fertility rates and gross domestic product per capita, assumptions are made that smaller families will lead to richer people. However, there isn’t evidence that the causal relationship is in that direction. It’s possible that getting richer leads to smaller families. Duflo discussed two types of studies (“fertility shocks”1 and study on China’s one-child policy2) to provide evidence as to why big families are not necessarily bad for children. However, given that a fixed number of resources must be spread out between a larger number of people, they suggest that it is, in fact, mothers who often lose out as family size grows. Larger families sizes are associated with a reduced opportunity for women to work and control finances within the family.


2. Lack of access to contraceptives leads to large families
Duflo argued that low usage of contraceptives is not necessarily an indication of a lack of access to contraceptives.3,4 She and Banerjee conclude on the topic: “Contraceptive access may make people happy by giving them a much more convenient way to control their fertility than the available alternative. But it appears to do, in itself, little to reduce fertility” (110).

Duflo and Banerjee argue that some of the major causes of large families are cultural norms, the fact that children are “financial instruments” who may care for parents in old age, and a lack of agency within the family for women.

Overall, the book and discussion challenge assumptions we have about the poor and how to improve the lives of the poor. While getting policies, institutions and systems right can be extremely difficult, Duflo and Banerjee identify a number of surprising interventions that can improve people’s lives. Taken as a whole, the book shows the interconnectedness of many factors relating to poverty alleviation. The chapter on population concludes that proper policies and interventions that will most effectively address population having little to do with it directly:

The most effective population policy might therefore be to make it unnecessary to have so many children (in particular, so many male children). Effective social safety nets (such as health insurance or old age pensions) or even the kind of financial development that enables people to profitably save for retirement could lead to a substantial reduction in fertility and perhaps also less discrimination against girls (125).


1. Joshua Angrist, Victor Lavy, and Analia Schlosser, “New Evidence on the Causal Link Between the Quantity and Quality of Children,” NBER Working Paper W11835 (2005).
2. Nancy Qian, “Quantity-Quality and the One Child Policy: The Positive Effect of Family Size on School Enrollment in China,” NBER Working Paper W14973 (2009).
3. Mark Pitt, Mark Rosenzweig, and Donna Gibbons, “The Determinants and Consequences of the Placement of Government Programs in Indonesia,” World Bank Economic Review 7(3) (1993): 319-348.
4. Lant H. Pritchett, “Desired Fertility and the Impact of Population Policies,” Population and Development Reivew 20(1) (1994): 1-55.