Want a Larger Family? Better Stay in School

Despite spending more time working than any other group, women with advanced university degrees are having more children than other college-educated women. Why? Because the growing divide between the rich and the poor has created a willing pool of mommy-substitutes that the wealthy can afford.

It is fairly well known that fertility rates in the West have been falling for over 200 years. In 1800, for example, the average American woman gave birth to seven children. That rate fell every decade of the 19th century, reaching its current low level of two children per woman by the 1930s. The baby-boom increased fertility temporarily mid-century, when the biggest change came from an increase in the number of women who went from having no children to having at least one. Fertility rates have been in decline fairly consistently since that time.

Part of the explanation for this trend in declining fertility is that as education has become more important in the workforce, families have traded child quantity for child quality – fewer, better educated children are preferred when brains are more important than brawn in generating income.

Starting at the beginning of the 19th century women began taking advantage of this trend (i.e. becoming better educated and spending more time at work and less time at home) and ever since that point family sizes have been tied to the education levels of mothers. Educated women not only lose more income in the time they take away from work to have their children, but work disruptions reduce the future earning potential of educated women by more than less educated women. Add to that the fact that, in general, highly educated parents want to produce highly educated children – which is costly – and we have come to expect that the more educated the woman, the fewer children she will have.  

New research, though, suggests that this is not entirely true. The authors of this study find there is a U-shaped relationship between a woman’s education and her total lifetime fertility. The women having the least number of children are those that started college but did not finish (1.79 on average). The next lowest group is women who have a college degree (1.93). And among women with education greater than high school, the ones with the most children are those with advanced college degrees (1.98).

If you think these fertility rate differences are small then consider this: These numbers include women who have exactly 0 children. The US Census Bureau finds the share of women who have not had a single child before the age of 40-44 increases from 18% for women with some college education to 22.5% for women with an advanced degree. If this is the case, then the differences in fertility rates by education for women who choose to become mothers (as opposed to those who do not) are actually greater than they appear.

What is the explanation for why woman with more education are now having more children despite also spending more time out of the home and in the workforce? Inequality in the US has been growing over the past thirty years with the real wages of workers in the bottom the income distribution falling by 30% since the mid-1970’s by some estimates. This fall in wages of unskilled workers combined with an increase in the wages paid to the highly educate has meant that women with more education can now afford to buy on the market the services that other mothers (and presumably fathers) have to supply themselves.

Housekeepers and nannies are taking educated mother’s place in the home not only allowing her to spend more time at work but also to have more children.

Evidence that inequality can explain why more educated women have more children can be found by comparing the experience of mothers in Western Europe (where incomes are much more equal) with that of mothers in the US. Women in European Union countries have far few children than women in the US – on average one-half child per woman. The authors of this paper argue that the international difference in fertility rates can be explained by low levels of inequality that prevent European woman from substituting their services for those that can be bought on the market. European women spend on average 10 hours a week more on housework than do American woman and 8 hours less in the labor force – despite only having 1.6 children on average.

When I think about the women I know, most of whom have advanced degrees, they really fall into two camps – women with no children and women with 2 or 3 children. The women with no children work long hours. The women I know with children, particularly those who have 3, take advantage of their high education levels to earn a high income but they also tend to have educated spouses that contribute significantly to child care and housework. This paper controls for fathers work hours, but it cannot control for the amount of a man’s non-work hours he spends taking care of his family. If educated women are in a better position to negotiate with their husbands and, as a result, those men are taking more responsibility for children in his non-work hours then this could explain why these woman have more children, independent of their ability to buy  services on the market.

One more thought, is this phenomena of well educate women having more children good for economic growth? If human capital matters (it does) then it should be very good for long-run growth. Especially if women don’t feel they face a trade-off between having children and having an education. This is one more aspect to consider in the on-going debate on how inequality will affect us all in the long-run.

Reference: Moshe Hazan and Hosny Zoabi (2011). "Do Highly Educated Women Choose Smaller Families?" CEPR Discussion Paper No. DP8590.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
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