My Economy Lab column this week is about Missing women in China – and Canada too?
Recent research by Douglas Almond, Lena Edlund, and WCI regular Kevin Milligan has found evidence of "son preference" - families planning their children to make sure that they have at least one son - within some ethnic groups in Canada. The paper does a number of careful and rigorous tests which are hard to explain in 400 words or less, but this finding is simple and easy to understand:
Their test families were ones with two girls. If those families decided to have a third child, did they have a boy or a girl? Absent sex selection, about 1.05 boys are born for every girl. But when their group of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese Canadian families with two girls decided to have a third child, they have a boy 1.39 times more often than a girl – a difference outside what can be explained by biological variation. Some parents in Canada do seem to prefer sons.
The results pass the test of statistical significance: more sons are born can be explained by random chance.
The results pass the test of economic significance: son preference has a real effect on people's behaviour. After all, (micro) economics is the study of choice, of trying to explain and predict people's decisions.
But do the results have policy significance? Policy analysis considers, first, the consequences of individuals' choices for society as a whole.
Sex selection in China may have profound consequences reaching out far beyond the borders of the middle kingdom. A recent UN study reports that there are about 120 boys for every 100 girls in the 0 to 4 age group in China. That gender imbalance, multiplied by the size of the Chinese population, implies that there may be millions of men who will never find partners. Predicted social consequences range from increased militarism, higher savings rates, growth in the sex industry, increased sexual violence and human trafficking to (my own personal prediction) more guys staying home and playing video games.
But what about Canada? Sadly, I lack Professor Milligan's econometric skills (and access to the census master files), so I did the standard "missing women" calculation: is the ratio of men to women in the population more or less what one would expect?
In Canada, there are more Chinese girls than boys. Based on the 2006 public use census files, 51 per cent of Chinese children under 15 in Canada were girls. This is surprising. Normally more boys are born than girls – nature’s way of compensating for boys’ higher mortality rate. Perhaps some of China’s missing women can be found in Canada, girls who have been adopted by Canadian families.
To exclude adoptees, I also considered only Chinese children who had been born Canada. In the 2006 census, there were 105.15 Chinese-Canadian boys under 15 for every 100 girls – compared to 105.15 boys for every 100 girls in the non-visible minority population. There is no more evidence of “missing girls” in Canada’s Chinese community than in the non-visible minority population. Yes, there may be some families who prefer sons. But there aren’t very many of them, and they may be offset by families who prefer daughters [or one of each sex]. And the many more families who love and accept their children for who they are.
Son preference exists in Canada. But either sex selection exists in the non-visible minority community as well, or it is not widespread enough to have a measurable impact on population ratios. In any event, there are no obvious signs that sex selection, to the extent that it occurs in Canada, will have large social consequences.
After assessing the consequences, a policy analyst must ask: what are the alternatives? Stopping sex selection from happening does not change the underlying economic realities and social values that make people prefer sons or daughters. Without sex selection, one risks condemning girls to the hard life of the unwanted daughter. One of the (many) fascinating paradoxes is that despite - or perhaps because of - widespread sex selection, China does very well on the United Nation's "Gender Development Index." Its gender development index as a percentage of its human development index - a rough measure of the level of gender equality - is number 10 in the world.
As an economist, I find the Almond, Edlund, and Milligan research fascinating - if I was refereeing their paper, I would give it the thumbs up and recommend publication.
But there would be no point in even writing a policy analysis of the effects of son preferences -- it would end up being far too speculative. And what policies could one recommend? Restrictions on telling parents the sex of their child when fetal ultrasounds are performed are already in place in British Columbia. Mao Zedong often quoted the proverb "women hold up half the sky," but his cultural revolution was a dismal failure. Preferences for sons or daughters might disappear if gender did not shape a child's economic and social opportunities - and one could write a 2000 page treatise on alternative ways of making that happen.
So policy analysis has little academic respectability, not because it's too easy, but because it's far too hard to do rigorously and well.