Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Do Baby Girls Cause Divorce?”
This episode was inspired by a question from a reader named John Dolan-Heitlinger, who wrote the following:
My wife has observed that in marriages where there is a son there is less chance of the husband leaving the marriage.
I wonder if that is true.
Thanks for your consideration.
Mr. Dolan-Heitlinger asks, and we deliver. And his wife, as it turns out, is right. In a paper called “The Demand for Sons,” the economists Enrico Moretti and Gordon B. Dahl examined differences in marital rates based on whether a first-born child is a son or daughter. Here are some of their findings:
- Couples who conceive a child out of wedlock and find out that it will be a boy are more likely to marry before the birth of their baby.
- Parents who have first-born girls are significantly more likely to be divorced.
- Fathers are significantly less likely to be living with their children if they have daughters versus sons.
- In any given year, roughly 52,000 first-born daughters younger than 12 years (and all their siblings) would have had a resident father if they had been boys.
- Divorced fathers are much more likely to obtain custody of sons compared to daughters.
“Son preference” is not new, of course (and we’ve dealt with a different version before on this show). Gallup has been polling on this question since 1941, and the results have barely budged. In 2011, 40 percent preferred sons and 28 percent daughters; the rest stated no preference or opinion. (In 1941 the margin was 38 percent to 24 percent.)
In this podcast, Stephen Dubner talks with Enrico Moretti about the research itself and the broader economic implications of so many girls living without their dads.
MORETTI: For children and families with absentee fathers due to a first-born daughter, family income is reduced by about 50 percent and poverty rates are increased by about 30 percent. So these are economically important effects.
Thanks again to John Dolan-Heitlinger for the question that sparked this discussion. Please keep your good questions coming!
Enrico MORETTI: I’m Enrico Moretti and I’m a professor of economics at Berkeley.
Stephen J. DUBNER: Okay, very good. So Enrico, a listener wrote to us with a very, very straightforward questions which is this, “In marriages where a baby boy is born, is there less chance of the husband leaving the marriage?” So we can get into the details later, but can you…You know, economists are famous for never giving a yes or no answer to anything. I’m wondering if you can give us a yes or no answer to that question?
MORETTI: Yes, it’s an easy answer. And the answer is yes. Parents who have first-born girls are significantly more likely to be divorced. And so parents who have first-born boys are significantly more likely to stay together.
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ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: You just heard Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, tell us a striking fact: that parents whose first child is a daughter are significantly more likely to be divorced than if they’d had a son. How does Moretti know this? He wrote a research paper, along with the economist Gordon Dahl, called “The Demand for Sons.” They analyzed U.S. census data from 1960 to 2000, along with other data, to measure the effect of a firstborn child’s gender on marital stability.
MORETTI: We find that fathers are significantly less likely to be living with their children if they have daughters versus sons. This overall effect is fairly large; it’s about 3.1 percent lower probability of a father for families with a girl.
DUBNER: And can you put that into numbers of families, or daughters for me then?
MORETTI: Yes, we estimate that over a 10-year period, that accounts for about 50,000 first-born daughters who are living without their father.
DUBNER: Wow. So Enrico, you’re saying that there is a significant, not huge, but significant effect on marriage that a firstborn daughter will have, that a firstborn daughter will decrease, you know, marriage rates or increase the families that are splitting up. Why? What are the channels, you know, by which this firstborn daughter leads to fewer fathers living with the family? Why do male offspring seem to be better at holding marriages together?
MORETTI: There are three main channels. First of all, women who have daughters are more likely to have never been married than women who have boys. Second, parents who have firstborn girls are significantly more likely to be divorced. And third, divorced fathers are much more likely to obtain custody of their sons compared to their daughters.
DUBNER: Okay, so three channels you say. One is when there’s a couple who conceives a child out of wedlock, if that child is a girl, you’re saying the couple then is less likely then to marry, yes?
MORETTI: That’s correct.
DUBNER: Talk to me for a minute about that. A) I’m just a little curious about what your response was when you saw that in the data. And B) I’m curious if you can offer any why on that one for us?
MORETTI: We were very surprised when we found the evidence on marriage in the data. We were even more surprised when we found evidence that the gender of the kid affects the probability of shotgun marriages. In particular we find that for parents who are not married at conception of the kid, among those who learn that their future child will be a boy, they’re more likely to marry by the time of delivery compared to parents who learn that their future child will be a girl.
DUBNER: Now I just want to step back. So there’s a Gallup poll that you describe that’s been taken ever since 1941 with a survey question that asks, “If you could have only one child would you prefer that it be a boy or a girl?” And in 2011, the most recent survey year, boys led girls 40 percent to 28 percent, with 26 percent saying it doesn’t matter. So first of all, why such a large gap? Why do you think, or what do you know about why people have such a strong son preference?
MORETTI: Well, one thing we do know is that it’s mostly driven by men. When women are asked whether they would like to have a boy or a girl, they are evenly split. But when men are asked when they’d rather have a boy versus a girl, they tend to favor boys. And this is consistent with the evidence in our study that comes from actual choices that people make rather than their self-reported preferences.
DUBNER: And do we know, can you unpack the number and tell us why that is, why do fathers at least say they want and as your data show actually want sons more than daughters?
MORETTI: Our study doesn’t really address the causes. We take that they are cultural. And economists take preferences as given, they don’t discuss preferences, they don’t question preferences; the best they can do they can measure preferences. And that’s what we seek to do.
[MUSIC: Euforquestra, “Chango” (from Explorations in Afrobeat)]
DUBNER: “That’s what we seek to do,” Moretti says. Measure people’s preferences, not dictate them. That is, often, a very fine line in modern society. The world is a bed of nails, and we are all hammers. Enrico Moretti just wants to know how the nails got there, and what they’re made of. When we come back, we’ll drag Professor Moretti back onto some more-familiar ground — the economic impact of the daughter effect:
MORETTI: For children and families with an absentee fathers due to a firstborn daughter family income is reduced by about 50 percent.
DUBNER: And, me being a hammer, I ask: what should we do about this?
MORETTI: You’re talking about a tax on divorce?
DUBNER: Yes I am.
MORETTI: Good luck with that.
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
[MUSIC: Wolfram Gruss, “Petit Gennevilliers”]
DUBNER: Let’s say there’s a couple – for the purposes of this conversation, a woman and a man. And they are expecting a baby. Congratulations! And then they have an ultrasound and they find out it’s going to be a girl baby – fantastic! But… uh-oh. The Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti tells us that if this couple isn’t married, having a baby daughter instead of a son makes it less likely that they will get married. And if the couple is married – well, that couple is more than 2 percent more likely to get a divorce. Why?
MORETTI: Well there are three fundamental possible explanations. The first one is that parents have a preference for boys over girls. And so when they learn they’re going to have a boy that makes them happier and keeps the family intact at least more than when they learn they have a daughter. Explanation one is therefore parents are gender biased. But it’s also possible that parents are not gender biased. It’s also possible that they like boys and girls equally but they realize that having a father might be relatively more important for boys than for girls, either because fathers play an important role model for the boys, or because fathers might have some other type of comparative advantage in raising boys versus girls. And there’s also a third possible explanation. Again, in this third explanation there is no gender preference but parents might realize that girls are more costly to raise than boys in terms of time and or monetary expenses.
DUBNER: Why are girls more costly to raise than boys?
MORETTI: Well there’s actually, believe it or not, there’s actually literature on this question and it’s not perfectly conclusive, but a growing number of studies suggest that girls tend to be more expensive because they require more time, and they tend to be more, girls incur more monetary expenses, especially in the teenage years.
DUBNER: Are talking, we’re talking expenses, are we talking about what? Are we talking about educational expenses, are we talking about personal grooming stuff, clothing and makeup?
MORETTI: Personal expenses.
MORETTI: I want to make clear this is not something that we found, but this is something that other studies have found.
DUBNER: I understand. O.K. so you identify three possible explanations for why this is happening. One is preferences, just parents prefer boys for whatever reason. Two might be what you call a kind of compensatory behavior where a father would be more likely to stay with a family if there’s a boy because he thinks it’s more harmful for a boy to grow up without a father as a role model. And the third is that it’s harder and or costlier to raise girls than boys. Which one or ones of these explanations do you find most plausible or would carry the most weight?
MORETTI: Well in order to make progress on that question we looked at fertility decisions. So we looked at the decision of adding an additional baby after you already have one child. And we compare families who already have one boy with families who already have a daughter. And we look at the probability of going for a second kid. And what we find is that in families with a firstborn daughter the total number of subsequent children rises significantly. By our estimate, a firstborn daughter causes approximately 5,000 additional births per year compared with families with firstborn boys.
DUBNER: And you looked at this over about 40 years. You’re talking about 200,000 extra children you’re saying because of what looks to be a son preference.
MORETTI: That’s right. Families whose first born is a boy seems to feel less of a need of adding a second kid relative to families whose firstborn is a daughter. And this in our opinion is very solid evidence that even today U.S. parents have strong preferences for boys.
DUBNER: Now, these fathers who skip out on their families if a daughter is born first whether the couple is married or not, this has serious negative consequences, yes? Can you talk for a moment about that?
MORETTI: The effects are large. For children and families with an absentee father due to a firstborn daughter, family income is reduced by about 50 percent and poverty rates are increased by about 30 percent. So these are economically important effects.
DUBNER: So I know the following question is always a dangerous one because economists especially generally don’t like to be prescriptive, but knowing what you know about this issue if I were the president or a senator or governor and I were to come to you and say Professor Moretti I understand you’ve done some research on this topic, can you recommend a policy idea based on this that would help more families, more children, especial more daughters, would you do anything about it?
MORETTI: It’s really hard to see what the president or congress could do about it. These are deep-seated cultural norms and values. They don’t seem to be going away over time. It’s pretty clear that being born in a broken family has long-lasting economic consequences, and I think maybe that’s where we should focus our energies. I’m not sure it’s feasible, or even desirable for the government to try to change in any ways people’s preferences.
DUBNER: What about however…I mean, given the size of that impact, how much a family suffers a result of that divorce, you do believe in incentives, incentives can even help overcome preferences. So should there be an anti-divorce preference that goes across the board that isn’t meant to directly address the son preference but manages to catch it along the way?
MORETTI: You’re talking about a tax on divorce?
DUBNER: Yes I am.
MORETTI: Good luck with that.
DUBNER: Or a marriage bonus, however you want to put it. Or I don’t know, maybe it’s, maybe it is a firstborn daughter bonus.
MORETTI: You know, one thing that I want to make clear is that the gender of the children is not the only factor in determining divorce or marital stability. In fact, it’s not even the main factor in determining divorce or marital stability. There are many, many factors that go into a couple’s decision of splitting and gender is just one of the many factors. And I’m all in favor of thinking of economic policies that can foster family stability. I’m not sure we should specifically target gender of the children as one source of economic policy.
[MUSIC: Crytzer’s Blue Rhythm Band, “Dickey’s Blues” (from Chasin’ the Blues)]
DUBNER: Enrico, are you married?
MORETTI: Yes I am.
DUBNER: And do you have any children?
MORETTI: I have a wonderful four-year-old boy.
DUBNER: And what is his name?
DUBNER: Mateo. Did you have a son preference?
MORETTI: I actually did. Before having Mateo, I was really, really hoping to have a daughter. But ever since he was born, I find myself delighted at having a boy. And I can’t believe I wanted a girl. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
DUBNER: Why did you want a daughter?
MORETTI: I have, I was hoping to have a daughter that looked exactly like my wife, but much younger.
DUBNER: Does Mateo know yet that you were hoping for a daughter?
MORETTI: He doesn’t, but I don’t think he has any concern about that. He’s four, he’s happy, he’s just a bundle of joy.
DUBNER: He doesn’t listen to podcasts does he?
MORETTI: He doesn’t listen to Freakonomics Radio just yet.
DUBNER: So Enrico Moretti’s boy Mateo doesn’t listen to this program – but John Dolan-Heitlinger does. He’s a consultant in Key West, Florida, – and he’s the guy who wrote in with the original question. He said: “My wife has observed that in marriages where there is a son there is less chance of the husband leaving the marriage. I wonder if that is true.” So after we interviewed Enrico Moretti, and found out that it is true, we let John know. Here’s what he wrote back: “I will tell my wife Eileen she was right, as she typically is.”
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DUBNER: So John, thank you for writing. And thanks for giving us ideas maybe for future podcasts. Such as: how much more likely is a marriage to last when the wife, like Eileen in this case is usually “right”? What about when the husband is usually “right”? Or when the husband and wife are right an equal number of times? How much more likely is a marriage to last if… (fade).
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