Bernardo M. Villegas
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Why Large Families Are Poor

           The observation that many large families are poor makes some people conclude that it is too many children that causes a family to be poor.  Is this a correct conclusion?  Dr. Roberto de Vera, one of the few economic demographers in the country, graduate of the University of Pittsburgh in the U.S., answers with a resounding No.  Mustering data from existing Family Income and Expenditure surveys of the Government, he exposes the error of concluding that it is the large size that makes a Filipino family poor.

          He starts with the seeming evidence that poverty is directly proportional to the number of children in a household.  From the 2000 Family Income and Expenditure Survey (FIES), he points out that there is an increasing proportion of poor families as family size increases:  from 4.9% in families with no children to 59.1% in families with seven children.  He then shows why it is an erroneous inference to conclude that this observation should be a basis for limiting the family size of poor people.  He argues:  "First, finding that increasing family size is associated with increasing incidence of poor families does not prove that a large family size is what makes a family poor.  The more likely reason why some families are poor is the limited schooling of the household head.  In fact, 78% to 90% of the poor households in each family size had heads with no high school diploma.  In other words, poor families are poor not because they are large but because most of their heads attended few years of schooling."  To belabor the point, a family with no or few children would still be poor if its head has had meager education.  A large family (and I can cite many examples in Forbes Park and Dasmarinas Village) can be rich if its head has had many years of schooling.


          This more intelligent reading of the data of the FIES can be an empirical support for the enlightened view of nine congress people, i.e., Dakila Carlo E. Cua, Rachel Marguerite B. del Mar, Fatima Aliah Q.Dimaporo, Lucy T.  Gomez, Karlo Alexei B. Nograles, Gabriel R. Quisumbing, Irwin C. Tiong, Mariano Michael M. Velarde Jr. and Lord Allan Jay Q. Velasco, who would want the P3 billion proposed appropriation for the RH Bill to be instead spent directly on education.  They did their homework and found out that this P3 billion can build 4,644 new classrooms, enough to wipe out classroom shortages in the provinces of Batangas, Cebu, Nueva Ecija, South Cotabato, and Valenzuela City.  Or the same amount can subsidize the college education of 300,000 scholars--a chance of underprivileged student achievers to earn their diplomas.  Another opportunity cost of the P3 billion is the hiring of 13,000 additional teachers for our public schools.   It is heartening that our younger politicians are more forward looking and are really talking the language of sustainable development and inclusive growth.  Improving the quality of basic education in the Philippines is the most productive use of limited funds to guarantee the welfare of future generation (sustainability) and a more equitable distribution of income and wealth (equity).

          The other finding of Dr. de Vera in his research on demography is that poor parents do consider the consequences of their procreative capacities.  There is usually the condescending attitude of some proponents of the RH Bill that poor people are irrationally "multiplying like rabbits."  Dr. de Vera cites evidence from a Harvard professor, Lant Priitchett that 90% of the variation in actual fertility rates can be accounted for by variations in desired fertility rates.  In other words, parents who have large families want large families.  Parents want the children they actually beget.  The so-called "unwanted pregnancies" are the exception in the same way that what eventually led to the killing of millions of babies in the U.S. was an extremely exceptional case of a woman getting pregnant when she was raped (Roe Vs. Wade).

          Dr. de Vera cites plausible reasons why families may decide to have a large family in the Philippine setting.  First, farmers without infrastructural support and such equipment as tractors  and post-harvest facilities may find it reasonable to have four or more children who can help out as farm hands.  Second, parents with no access to social security, pension and medical care packages may have the motivation to have more children with the hope that one or more of them would take care of their parents in old age.  For millions of families who depend on the remittances of their children and other relatives who work overseas, this no mere hope but a very real phenomenon.

           To further support his hypothesis about the critical role of education and rural infrastructure in combatting poverty, Dr. de Vera refers to the 2002 Balisacan and Pernia study on poverty incidence in Philippine regions.  Their main conclusion was that the provision of education, together with roads, helps reduce poverty.  In other words, persons get the full returns on their education only if they have access to jobs that pay good wages and to markets that pay good prices for the goods they produce.  The study also showed that agrarian reform and irrigation alleviate poverty.  This finding is very consistent with the empirical observation of Dr. Balisacan that poverty is mainly a rural phenomenon, with nearly two-thirds of the rural poor working in agriculture.  I think it is about time that the more mature people in the House of Representatives listen more to their younger colleagues who think passing the RH Bill would involve a great waste of very scarce funds.  Kudos to these young congress people who are steeped in the economic concept of opportunity cost.  For comments, my email address is