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A model comparison approach shows stronger support for economic models of fertility decline

Shenk, Mary K., Towner, Mary C., Kress, Howard C., Alam, Nurul
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2013 v.110 no.20 pp. 8045-8050
children, econometric models, economic costs, economic factors, mortality, motivation, prediction, risk, social behavior, statistical analysis, Bangladesh
The demographic transition is an ongoing global phenomenon in which high fertility and mortality rates are replaced by low fertility and mortality. Despite intense interest in the causes of the transition, especially with respect to decreasing fertility rates, the underlying mechanisms motivating it are still subject to much debate. The literature is crowded with competing theories, including causal models that emphasize (i) mortality and extrinsic risk, (ii) the economic costs and benefits of investing in self and children, and (iii) the cultural transmission of low-fertility social norms. Distinguishing between models, however, requires more comprehensive, better-controlled studies than have been published to date. We use detailed demographic data from recent fieldwork to determine which models produce the most robust explanation of the rapid, recent demographic transition in rural Bangladesh. To rigorously compare models, we use an evidence-based statistical approach using model selection techniques derived from likelihood theory. This approach allows us to quantify the relative evidence the data give to alternative models, even when model predictions are not mutually exclusive. Results indicate that fertility, measured as either total fertility or surviving children, is best explained by models emphasizing economic factors and related motivations for parental investment. Our results also suggest important synergies between models, implicating multiple causal pathways in the rapidity and degree of recent demographic transitions.