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Graph of Total Fertility Rate vs. GDP per capita of the corresponding country, 2009. Only countries with over 5 Million population were plotted, to reduce outliers. Sources: CIA World Fact Book. For details, see List of countries and territories by fertility rate

The demographic-economic paradox is the inverse correlation found between wealth and fertility within and between nations. The higher the degree of education and GDP per capita of a human population, subpopulation or social stratum, the fewer children are born in any industrialized country. In a 1974 UN population conference in Bucharest, Karan Singh, a former minister of population in India, illustrated this trend by stating "Development is the best contraceptive."[1]

The term "paradox" comes from the notion that greater means would necessitate the production of more offspring as suggested by the influential Thomas Malthus.[2] Roughly speaking, nations or subpopulations with higher GDP per capita are observed to have fewer children, even though a richer population can support more children. Malthus held that in order to prevent widespread suffering, from famine for example, what he called "moral restraint" (which included abstinence) was required. The demographic-economic paradox suggests that reproductive restraint arises naturally as a consequence of economic progress.

It is hypothesized that the observed trend has come about as a response to increased life expectancy, reduced childhood mortality, improved female literacy and independence, and urbanization that all result from increased GDP per capita,[3] consistent with the demographic transition model.

Current information suggests that the demographic-economic paradox only holds up to a point though. Recent data suggests that once a country reaches a certain level of human development and economic prosperity the fertility rate stabilizes and then recovers slightly to replacement rates [4].


Demographic transition

Before the 19th century demographic transition of the western world, a minority of children would survive to the age of 20, and life expectancies were short even for those who reached adulthood. For example, in the 17th century in York, England 15% of children were still alive at age 15 and only 10% of children survived to age 20.[3]

Birth rates were correspondingly high, resulting in slow population growth. The agricultural revolution and improvements in hygiene then brought about dramatic reductions in mortality rates in wealthy industrialized countries, initially without affecting birth rates. In the 20th century, birth rates of industrialized countries began to fall, as societies became accustomed to the higher probability that their children would survive them. Cultural value changes were also contributors, as urbanization and female employment rose.

Since wealth is what drives this demographic transition, it follows that nations that lag behind in wealth also lag behind in this demographic transition. The developing world's equivalent Green Revolution did not begin until the mid-twentieth century. This creates the existing spread in fertility rates as a function of GDP per capita.


Another contributor to the demographic-economic paradox may be religion. Religious societies tend to have higher birth rates than secular ones, and richer, more educated nations tend to advance secularization. [5] This may help explain the Israeli and Saudi Arabian exceptions, the two notable outliers in the graph of fertility versus GDP per capita at the top of this article. In American media it is widely believed that America is also an exception to global trends. The current fertility rate in America is 2.09, higher than in most other developed countries.[6][7] This may be due to the United States having a high percentage of religious followers compared to Europe as a whole.[8]

Church service attendance and number of offspring according to the World Value Survey 1981-2004[9]
Church service attendance Number of offspring
never 1.67
only on holidays 1.78
once per month 2.01
once per week 2.23
more frequently 2.5

The role of different religions in determining family size is complex. For example, the Catholic countries of southern Europe traditionally had a much higher fertility rate than was the case in Protestant northern Europe. However, economic growth in Spain, Italy, etc, has been accompanied by a particularly sharp fall in the fertility rate, to a level below that of the Protestant north. This suggests that the demographic-economic paradox applies more strongly in Catholic countries, although Catholic fertility started to fall when the liberalizing reforms of Vatican II were implemented. It remains to be seen if the fertility rate among (mostly Catholic) Hispanics in the U.S. will follow a similar pattern.

Another possible explanation for the "American exception" is its much higher rate of teenage pregnancies,[10] particularly in the southern US,[11] compared to other countries with effective sexual education; this does not contradict the religious-beliefs hypothesis.

In his book America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It, Mark Steyn asserts that the United States has higher fertility rates because of its greater economic freedom compared to other industrialized countries. However, the countries with the highest assessed economic freedom, Hong Kong and Singapore, have significantly lower birthrates than the United States. According to the Index of Economic Freedom, Hong Kong is the most economically free country in the world[12]. Hong Kong also has the world's lowest birth rate[13].

However, studies have also suggested a correlation between population density and fertility rate.[14][15][16] Hong Kong and Singapore have the third and fourth-highest population densities in the world. This may account for their very low birth rates despite high economic freedom. By contrast, the United States ranks 180 out of 241 countries and dependencies by population density.


A reduction in fertility can lead to an aging population which leads to a variety of problems, see for example the Demographics of Japan.

A related concern is that high birth rates tend to place a greater burden of child rearing and education on populations already struggling with poverty. Consequently, inequality lowers average education and hampers economic growth. [17] Also, in countries with a high burden of this kind, a reduction in fertility can hamper economic growth as well as the other way around. [18]

See also


  1. ^ David N. Weil (2004). Economic Growth. Addison-Wesley. p. 111. ISBN 0201680262.  
  2. ^ EconLib-1826: An Essay on the Principle of Population,
  3. ^ a b demographic transition
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ Marburg Journal of Religion (June 2006) "Religiousity as a demographic factor"
  6. ^ Watch on the West: Four Surprises in Global Demography - FPRI
  7. ^ CIA - The World Factbook -- Rank Order - Total fertility rate
  8. ^ Nicholas Eberstadt - America the Fertile - May 6, 2007
  9. ^ Michael Blume (2008) "Homo religiosus", Gehirn und Geist 04/2009. pp. 32 - 41.
  10. ^ Adamson, Peter; Giorgina Brown, John Micklewright and Anna Wright (July 2001). "A League Table of Teenage Births in Rich Nations" (PDF). Innocenti Report Card (Unicef) (3). ISBN 88-85401-75-9.  
  11. ^ "National and State Trends and Trends by Race and Ethnicity" (PDF). U.S. Teenage Pregnancy Statistics (Guttmacher Institute). September 2006.  
  12. ^ Index of Economic Freedom
  13. ^ CIA - The World Factbook - Rank Order - Birth rate
  14. ^ Economic geography, fertility and migration Yasuhiro Sato, Journal of Urban Economics. Published July 30, 2006. Last accessed March 31, 2008.
  15. ^ An Estimate of the Long-Term Crude Birth Rate of the Agricultural Population of China Chia-lin Pan, Demography, Volume 3, No. 1. Published 1966. Last accessed March 31, 2008.
  16. ^ [2]. Tory Gattis, Published January 15, 2006. Last accessed March 31, 2008.
  17. ^ de la Croix, David and Matthias Doepcke: Inequality and growth: why differential fertility matters. American Economic Review 4 (2003) 1091-1113. [3]
  18. ^ UNFPA: Population and poverty. Achieving equity, equality and sustainability. Population and development series no. 8, 2003.[4]


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