Good morning and welcome to another installment of “The Falsehoods.” Today’s falsehood is the assertion that the poor have more babies than the rich, or that the poor just have more babies to begin with. In comparison to … whatever.
Now, before you rush off to the Internet and find some table or graph that shows higher fertility in women of lower SES than higher SES, or a high birth rate among Nigerians, I want to acknowledge right away that such evidence is easy to find, and it is easy to take that evidence and construct the obnoxious sentence that titles this post. Yes, that is all easy to do. Living in a world of falsoohosity is always easier. Thinking is hard.
The passing of Ted Kennedy is ironically linked to this post. The first piece I ever wrote on this question was a handout to use in class, and it was inspired by Ted Kennedy and his family on the night Kennedy beat Mit Romney in the race for Senator of Massachusetts. I had assigned a (then) recent publication on reproductive success and wealth in the Unites States, showing that rich Americans had more offspring than the average American.2 That reading had inspired anger among many of my (privileged snot faced Harvard3) students who were sure that Welfare Mothers(tm) were sucking all the wealth out of this nation by converting cuckold dollars into little dark skinned babies.
I sat there that evening, reveling in Kennedy’s success in beating the Mormon businessman Romney. Teddy got up on stage and did a little acceptance speech with a few of his relatives standing around him. Then he called more relatives up on stage. And more. And more. And more. And more. The crowds continued to clap and cheer, and Kennedy continued to victory salute the crowd and he was beaming as only he could beam. And more came relatives up on stage.
And I’m sitting there thinking: Hmmm… the final great disaster to hit the Kennedy family is going to be this stage collapsing under the weight of Joe Kennedy’s Reproductive Success…..
This falsehood … that poor people are out reproducing rich people … is important and interesting in a number of ways. For one thing, it exposes people’s race-based biases and fears. The anger that is expressed at me when I suggest that this is a falsehood is second only to the anger that results from my stance on gun control.1 I find that fascinating. Another, related reason this is interesting is because it exposes people’s ability to maintain their strongly held beliefs and to base those beliefs on the most tenuous or unrelated information. For instance, people are sure that poor people have more babies than rich people because it is well known that the fertility rate in Nigeria is through the roof and over the top, but that White American Middle Classers are reproducing at a rate that is lower than replacement. However, this comparison is wrong for so many reasons that a rational person hearing the argument must surely feel sorry for the person making it.
In fact, let’s take this third world part of the argument as the focus of today’s falsehood post. We can deal with other parts of the “poor people breed like rabbits” falsehood at another time. Let’s start out by looking closely at the White Middle Class American vs. Nigerian (or other third world) comparison. There is a basic reason that the comparison is faulty which most people don’t redly understand but that I will nonetheless try to explain. The comparison itself is not valid, useful, or interesting. It is a straw man argument using cherry picked “data.”
The reason that the argument is faulty is that Nigeria and Suburban America are not comparable for this variable, or for that matter, for many variables. There are two reasons for this, one you know and one you may not have thought of yet. The one you know with just modest reflection is that the assertion being tested here is that wealth is the key variable in determining number of babies, but suburban US and Nigeria are so different that there must be other variables involved. This is the old “correlation is not causation” problem in a big way. The other difference is a little more subtle but much more important: All wealth is local.
What do I mean by this? Especially, how can I say this in a world which is all interconnected, globalized, and stuff? For several reasons. First, the world is not as interconnected and globalized as you may think it is. The economy in a rural developing country is connected with the economy of the American suburbs via one or two commodities, but the day to day traditional economy of a rural African region tends to operate in spite of those connections, not because of them.
These two factors … lack of common context for the variables and contacts that are tenuous at best … make the comparison silly. To illustrate this silliness, let’s consider some examples that are not as visceral as “the poor will eventually take over the world, they’re having so many damn babies” assertion.
What is the best possible inter-city road and bridge system, and what is the cost of building such a system? In Nigeria and the US, I mean. Compare the two. Very quickly you will find that for each important variable of both road engineering and construction, not to mention administrative requirements and maintenance systems, the two places are different enough that a dollar per mile number is of no value and the comparison is almost impossible. And roads are roads, compared to other things. Like food.
How much effort goes into getting a plate of food on the table? Well, in the US you buy the food, bring it home, and cook it. In rural Africa, you plant the crops, tend them, harvest them, do initial processing, store the food, then do final processing and eventually you put it on your table. The comparison is very difficult. It is made even more difficult when you realize that the first several steps in rural Africa are represented by money in the US. How did you get that money? So, in comparing values (like cost per calories) we are now comparing the value of being a lawyer vs. a Detroit assembly line worker in relation to what is available at the grocery store on one hand, vs. the process of swidden horticulture and usufruct land use on the other. Good luck with that.
If you think comparing babies (N) across cultures is somehow simpler, then please rethink. Babies are the end point of a very complex set of processes that subsume the above mentioned ones and much more, and they are the beginning of an even more complex set of processes.
You just can’t make this comparison.
Even within the US it may be difficult to make these sorts of comparisons.
“Oh, man, those people down in Louisiana are so lucky. It costs them a fraction to build a road per mile of what it costs us in Minnesota…”
“Well,” someone answers, “Labor is cheap in Louisiana because of all the Mexicans and poor people”
“What are you talking about? That’s a crazy thing to say. The reason it is cheaper down there is because they don’t have winters, which totally changes the timing, staging costs, and material costs.”
“Oh yeah? Well, what a bout Nigeria! In Nigeria it costs NOTHING to build a road because everybody there is REALLY poor and RALLY … like, immigrant labor and stuff!!!””
I know that conversation sounds absurd to you, but as someone who has actually lived in a ‘third world’ (African) country where the fertility rate of adult reproducing women who live to old age is higher than for the mythical Middle Class American white lady who is not replacing herself and her husband, I can tell you that the statement that “it is true that poor people have more babies than rich people because in Nigeria, they reproduce like rabbits” sounds a lot like this, or even more absurd.
Let’s put a finer point on the inability to compare with an instructive illustration.
In the place I lived in Africa, there were villages. Most villages were very small, ranging from two up to about 30 people. There were clusters of anywhere from three or four to maybe a dozen villages, and each of these clusters (a “localite”) was an open but coherent economic system, with a minor “chief-ship” which was elected and/or inherited (specifically, it used to be inherited, but then became elected, but everyone would elect the heir unless he was a total jerk, then they’d elect someone else and thereafter that person’s heirs until the next jerk).
The official center of each household in this patriarchal and patrilineal society is an adult man and his wife or wives. A given village may consist of one such household, or a few, but typically if there were more than one this consisted of the main household and that family’s adult children or some other relative with their households. The wealth in such a village needed to be measured as the wealth of each adult married man, as this is how ownership of any wealth related materials was reckoned. This would be measurable in terms of size of crop, number and type of expensive and hard to get metal tools, and livestock.
(It was actually the famous Richard Wrangham who figured out that to get a good estimate of wealth for a village all we had to do was count the chickens, because they were correlated in number with the most stable variable, number of hoes and machetes.)
Within this community there were people with more or less wealth, and the differential wealth was sometimes obvious, like it is in the US. Once measured, it was discovered that the villagers with more wealth tended to have more offspring than the villagers with the lowest wealth. There were individuals exceptions but there was a statistically valid relationship. So, wealth is correlated with reproductive success: More wealth, more reproduction.
But what about the people living in suburban America who clearly have more wealth than these Africans, and have fewer children? Isn’t that the crux of the argument?
Well, no. It is not sufficient (not even close) to claim that middle class suburban Americans are more wealthy than these Africans. The suburban Americans have very little land in crops. They have almost no livestock. Yes, they do have a lot of these metal tools out in the garage, but a) the number and type of tools such as machetes and hoes does not correlate in suburban America with any other measure of wealth, and these tools are largely unused. Have you ever seen a machete that started out 70 cm long and has been worn down by daily use to 25 cm long in a garage in suburban America? The comparison, it turns out, is impossible. The wealthiest household in a particular region of Rural Africa is the wealthiest household there no matter what the people in Peoria or Saint Paul are doing with their hoes. It would, indeed, be very unfair to claim that your average doctor or lawyer living in an American suburb is not wealthy because they have no goats and no plantain gardens. It is also not valid to say that these American suburbanites are wealthier than the rural Africans because you think they are. In fact, that’s worse. At least I didn’t pull my assertion out of my ass like you (the hypothetical you) did!
Funny how when you look at it the other way round it does not work quite the same way.
1My stance on gun control is that we should think about it. Thinking is hard.
2Essock-Vitale SM (1984). The reproductive success of wealthy Americans Ethology and Sociobiology, 5 (1), 45-54
From the abstract:
The reproductive success of 400 very wealthy Americans was contrasted with that of the general American population….The September 1982 issue of “Forbes” magazine contained biographies of the 400 “richest people in America.” The mean net worth of the sample was in excess of $230,000,000 (the range was $75,000,000-$2,000,000,000). For most subjects, the article also specified the number of living children, number of marriages, and current marital status. Sex of the children was only noted for some of the sample. Information from “Who’s Who in America” (1982-83) was used to supplement and verify the Forbes’ information. The report excludes adopted children from all calculations. Statistics pertaining to the fertility of the general US population were compiled from 3 reports of the US Bureau of the Census (1980, 1982a, 1982b). Although selection of an adequate comparison population was problematic, these 400 Americans did appear to have had more children that did the general population. The mean number of children ever born the the “Forbes’” sample was 3.1; the mean age of the “Forbes” sample was 61.7. In contrast, the mean number of children for ever married females in the general population of the “Forbes” 400′s mean age was 2.7. If the “Forbes” sample was restricted to ever married persons 45 years old or older the mean number of children ever born was 3.2…. The survivorship rate of nearly 99% for the children of the “Forbes” sample appeared high by comparison to the rates for their white counterparts, 89% in the 1930s, 93% in the 1940s, 96% in the 1950s, and 97% in the 1960s. When information on the number of children ever born was combined with estimates of survivorship, the expected differences in the number of living children for wealthy women versus others became quite marked. …
3Did I say that out loud?
More Falsehoods !!!
This post is one of a series on the topic of falsehoods. The following is a list of falsehoods posts in order:
- The Falsehoods
- “False Pearls before Real Swine”
- Falsehood: A baby is not the biological offspring of its adoptive mother
- Falsehoods: Has evolution stopped for humans?
- Natural Selection is Survival Of the Fittest (A Falsehood)
- Falsehood: Nature maintains balance.
- Is it a Falsehood that Humans Evolve from Apes?
- The poor and the dark skinned have more babies than the rich and the light skinned
- Acting for the survival of the species (a falsehood)
- Culture Overrides Biology (Another falsehood)
- What is the Placebo Effect, and it it getting stronger?