Long-term fertility trends have been linked to education and family planning. However, new research examines these factors to determine what causes a decline in otherwise high-fertility countries. The widespread use of contraception and, to a lesser extent, girls’ education until the age of 14 have the greatest impact on lowering a country’s fertility rate.
Long-term fertility trends have been linked to education and family planning. However, new research from the University of Washington examines these factors to determine what causes a decline in otherwise high-fertility countries.
Daphne Liu, a doctoral student in statistics at the UW, and Adrian Raftery, a UW professor of statistics and sociology, investigate two nuanced questions in a paper published in Population and Development Review: Is it more effective in family planning to increase contraceptive use or to decrease demand? Is it the number of years girls attend a school or the total number of children enrolled in a school that makes education a factor in fertility?
Long-term fertility trends have been linked to education and family planning. Policymakers in countries with high fertility rates are frequently interested in accelerating fertility decline because rapid population growth can have a number of unintended economic, environmental, and public health consequences.Daphne Liu
“Policymakers in countries with high fertility rates are frequently interested in accelerating fertility decline because rapid population growth can have a number of unintended economic, environmental, and public health consequences,” Liu explained. “Policies that increase access to education and family planning are widely thought to hasten fertility decline by empowering individuals, particularly girls and women, to pursue their own life goals. Our work aims to explore what aspects of a country’s education and family planning have the greatest impact on fertility decline.”
As the world’s population grows to 10.9 billion by 2100, much of it is expected to occur in high-fertility countries such as Latin America, Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. The Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations recognize the role that sustainable fertility can play in a country’s environmental, economic, and population health, as well as the ways that family planning can help individuals achieve their own fertility goals.
Fertility rates above the “replacement rate” of 2.1 births per woman can stretch a country’s available resources, while fertility rates below the “replacement rate” of 2.1 births per woman can lead to a long-term lack of economic growth. The global fertility rate of 2.5 births per woman today is down from 3.2 in 1990, but it is higher in parts of the world where some countries have fertility rates of at least 4 births per woman.
The study by Liu and Raftery combines UN data on fertility rates since 1970 with data on education and contraception to determine which factors have the greatest impact. All of the countries in their study sample were classified as transitioning downward, albeit slowly, from a high fertility period.
Liu and Raftery examined two factors in the category of family planning over time: contraceptive prevalence, which is the percentage of women who use modern contraception, and unmet need, which is the percentage of women who say they want to delay or stop childbearing but are not using contraception. While the difference between the two metrics appears to be minor, Liu pointed out that unmet need can reflect hypothetical interest in family planning, whereas contraceptive prevalence reflects actual use. The prevalence of contraception had a significantly greater effect, according to the study.
Data from El Salvador, for example, show that the link between increased contraceptive use and a corresponding decline in fertility rate is particularly pronounced. The total fertility rate in the country fell from 5.44 births per woman in the mid-1970s, when 28 percent of women used birth control, to 2.72 births in the mid-2000s, when contraceptive prevalence had more than doubled.
Liu and Raftery also wanted to investigate the impact of education on fertility trends. They looked at two different aspects of education, both of which are linked to cultural values and economic outcomes: school enrollment and the highest level of education that girls typically achieve. The latter is a result of academic and professional opportunities available to women and girls, which may influence their childbearing decisions. The former has been hypothesized to have an impact on fertility because as more children attend school, it becomes more expensive to raise them, potentially discouraging families from having more children.
Liu and Raftery discovered that education influenced fertility primarily through the educational attainment of girls, particularly in their early adolescence (the “lower secondary” level of schooling). Completing at least the lower secondary level, which is generally regarded as the final stage of basic education, had a greater effect on fertility decline than completing only primary schooling.
Kenya saw a significant increase in girls’ educational attainment, with 59 percent reaching the lower secondary level in the mid-2010s, up from 12 percent in the mid-1970s. Kenya’s contraceptive prevalence increased steadily, from 5% to 51%, while the total fertility rate fell from 7.64 births per woman to 4.06.
Nonetheless, of the two factors – family planning and education – family planning was more important in hastening the transition. “It’s critical to understand why family planning is so important,” Raftery said. “However, both factors are important and work in tandem. Education provides women with more alternatives to having large families, while family planning provides them with the means to achieve their goals.”
Overall, fertility decreased in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the highest-fertility countries are located, but at a slower rate than in other high-fertility regions of the world. This could be related to economic development, cultural values surrounding family size, and educational quality. According to the researchers, policymakers and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should continue to focus on education, as well as the availability and acceptance of contraceptives for women, in accordance with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.