South-Western College Publishing - Economics  
Families with more than one kid? Where will we put all of them?
Subject China reconsiders its one-child policy.
Topic Economics and the Environment
Key Words

population control, China, one-child policy, fertility rates.

News Story

China is beginning to reconsider its draconian measures to curb population growth by restricting families to only one child. The huge country is beginning to consider allowing families in some parts of the country to have two children if they wish.

There have always been exceptions to the one-child rule. Rural families whose first-born child is a girl are allowed to have a second child. Some ethnic minorities are allowed two children. And in some urban areas, married individuals who themselves were only children are allowed more than one child. This has not been enough to stem the decline in the female fertility rate, now at 1.69 per female A rate of 2.1 is considered the rate at which a population can hold its own, just reproducing itself. At this rate, the Chinese population will begin to fall by about 2050.

The government argues that such measures have reduced births by approximately 300 million since the 1960s, easing the use of scarce resources and the spread of poverty. A further financial problem loom for China’s pension system, known as the “4-2-1 phenomenon.” Four grandparents are supported by 2 parents, who are in turn supported by only one child. By 2040 the financial burden will have reached catastrophic proportion.

1. Proponents of the policy argue that it is designed to eliminate an external cost imposed by families having more than one child. What externality is imposed on society by “extra” children?
2. Garret Hardin argued in “The Tragedy of the Commons” that population control policy needed to act with a sense of “lifeboat ethics.” That is, if we try to let everyone on, the lifeboat will sink and all will die. But if we limit the entrants onto the lifeboat, then all of those entrants will survive. Are there elements of lifeboat ethics in China’s policy? Why, then, would it want to backtrack on its former policy?

China also has a strongly patriarchal society, in which families desire a son to carry on the family lineage. This has resulted in a huge increase in the number of abortions of female fetuses, and a significant number of females in orphanages since the beginning of the one-child-only policy. Will this trend help or exacerbate the population problems created by the one-child policy? Why?

Source “A brother for her.” The Economist. 16 December 2005.

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