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Motherhood costs inhibit fertility rate in urban China

LIU JINJU | 2019-07-25
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


A number of surveys carried out in the past few years reveal that the difficulty of balancing work and family is one of the major obstacles preventing many families from having children. Photo: FILE


In recent years China has gradually loosened its family planning policy to tackle economic and social challenges posed by low fertility, in 2014 allowing couples to have two children if one of the parents is an only child and in 2016 implementing the universal two-child policy.
However, the response to the policies has been lukewarm. Although an evaluation of the two-child policies should be comprehensive and long term, the continuing low fertility rate can be attributed largely to the excessive costs of childbearing and rearing.


Related surveys
A number of surveys carried out in the past few years reveal that financial pressure and the difficulty of balancing work and family are major obstacles preventing many families from having children.

In 2016, the All-China Women’s Federation joined forces with Beijing Normal University to do a survey on the impacts of the universal two-child policy on family education. It shows that 20.5% of the surveyed families that already had one child were willing to have a second, and those unwilling accounted for 53.3%. In other words, more than half of the one-child families in the survey had no desire to have a second child. The desire in developed and urban areas was even lower.

Another study by the Population Development Studies Center at Renmin University of China investigated 12 cities in six provinces in 2016. According to the research, 40.5% of the childless families planned to have a second child and 29.5% of one-child families. Economic costs and a shortage of caregivers were the two principal factors hindering the second-child plan.

In addition, a 2015 survey on the reasons for the reluctance to have a second child by the former National Health and Family Planning Commission of China, currently the National Health Commission, shows that 74.5% of parents thought a child would be “financially burdensome,” 61.1% that a child would be “energy-consuming” and 60.5% that a child would be “unattended.” Childrearing costs took up nearly 50% of the average income of Chinese families.


Research status
The costs of having children include not only the immediate expenses of pregnancy, childbearing, childrearing, education and healthcare, but also opportunity costs, namely job, income or other developmental opportunities that parents abandon in order to bear or raise children.

Existing surveys or studies on fertility and opportunity costs are limited. Analyses of opportunity costs in particular are mostly qualitative. Quantitative research has been scarce. Though significant, studies of this kind face multiple challenges, such as concept definition, data collection and methodology.

Nonetheless, in recent years, Western scholars have done a series of empirical and quantitative studies on what is dubed as “motherhood penalty.” Based on data from the US, the UK, Germany, Finland and Spain, they have confirmed that the motherhood penalty is real. Women suffer a per-child penalty of losing 7% to 10% of their wages, and the more children they bear, the more losses they have to take.

Two recent pertinent studies by Chinese scholars show a large disagreement. One shows that the wages of women in urban China will drop by 40% each time they have a child, while the other says that the per-child wage penalty is 7%. Despite varying results for different data and methods used, at home and abroad alike, the motherhood penalty is alive and well in many countries, only to different degrees.


Study based on working life table
How big a price do Chinese women have to pay for having a child? Previous studies on the negative impacts of childbearing on women’s wages and labor participation are in fact estimations of relative quantity or indirect reflections of the motherhood penalty. Few are direct and absolutely quantitative.

The study in this article utilized a working life table for Chinese women to figure out the absolute quantity of penalties facing Chinese urban women by investigating per-child impacts on their labor participation. The strategy was to formulate a working life table for women so as to estimate an individual’s working life expectancy in order to calculate the loss of working life expectancy per child born. The loss is ultimately converted into income loss.

Data used in the research came from the 2017 China Fertility Survey. Conducted by the former National Health and Family Planning Commission, the survey covers all provinces, cities and districts across China, with the sample constituted of 250,000 women aged between 15 and 60 years old. The content included, but was not limited to, personal and family social and economic status, fertility behavior and desire, contraceptive methods, and childbearing and childcare services.

The study in this article utilized survey data concerning social and economic status and fertility behavior. In light of research aims, the sample for analysis was limited to women in urban areas, and the age of their chidlren, if they had any, was limited to 0–17 years old. The final sample for analysis comprised 60,000 women.

To avoid uncontrolled for changes in the distribution of age-specific labor participation caused by the shrink in sample size, the Logit model was used to smooth the labor participation rate. Given differences in the motherhood penalty between different groups, the level of education was incorporated into the model, because it is the most important factor affecting labor participation and can also represent the social and economic status of women.

Moreover, the labor participation of and motherhood penalty for women in cities of different tiers vary significantly, so dummy variables for Beijing and Shanghai were added to examine the motherhood penalty for women in megacities.

Since the formulation of the working life table entails mortality, we used data regarding the average life expectancy of Chinese women in 2015 released by the National Bureau of Statistics, supplemented by research results on the average life expectancy of women in rural and urban areas, of different educational levels, and in different provinces and cities.

We drew upon the research by Yang Mingxu and Lu Bei from the School of Public Management at South China Agricultural University for the life table of urban women nationwide; the study by Zhou Maigeng, a research fellow from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, for the life table of females in Beijing and Shanghai; and that by Zhai Zhenwu, a professor and dean of the School of Sociology and Population Studies at Renmin University of China, for the average life expectancy of highly educated women.

The research found that childbearing has produced remarkably negative impacts on women’s labor participation. Calculations of related regression models show that labor participation of women dropped markedly from being childless, having one child to having two children. The overall labor participation rate of women in the sample was 68%. The rate for childless women was 78%, that for one-child mothers was 68% and the rate for those with two children was 56%. Therefore, the labor participation rate for women fell by 10 percentage points per child born. For mothers of two children, the rate plummeted by 22 percentage points.

When it comes to highly educated women, the labor participation rate of non-mothers was 85%, that of one-child mothers was 77% and that for those with two children was 67%. The decreases in the labor participation rate were 8 and 18 percentage points for having one child and two children, respectively.

In terms of women living in Beijing and Shanghai, 82% of childless women engaged in labor, 73% of those with one child were in the labor force, and the labor participation rate for women with two children was 63%. Having one child and two children led to 9 and 19 percentage points of decline in the rate of labor participation. All that said, to what extent would the working life expectancy of these women fall due to the decreases in the labor participation rate?

Based on working life table calculations, the working life expectancy of urban mothers with one child was 30 years, 6.6 years less than the childless. Women with two children could only expect a working life of 24 years, 12.8 years less than their non-mother peers.

The working life expectancy of highly educated urban women dwindled by 7.1 and 13.9 years, for having one child and two children, respectively. Those in first-tier cities Beijing and Shanghai would lose 6.8 and 13.3 years in working life for having one child and two children, slightly more than the loss at the national average.

It can be assumed that Chinese urban women have to be out of the labor market for 6 to 7 years if they give birth to one child and raise them to 17 years old. Due to great income discrepancies among women in different categories in the labor market, similar working hours will incur different income losses.

The 2017 China Fertility Survey asked respondents about their personal and family incomes in 2016, so we calculated the average incomes of women in different categories. The annual income of urban women was 44,000 yuan on average in 2016, that of highly educated women averaged at 68,000 yuan and women in Beijing and Shanghai earned 86,000 yuan annually on average. Thus the income loss converted from the loss of working life due to childbirths differed vastly.

Based on the average annual income of urban women in 2016, they will bear an income loss of 290,000 yuan for having and raising one child. The loss for highly educated women will be nearly 200,000 yuan greater, reaching 480,000 yuan. Those living in megacities Beijing and Shanghai have to take a loss of double the national average, reaching 580,000 yuan. Obviously this is a huge cost and undoubtedly a major inhibitor on the desire to have children and the behavior of urban women. Differences in the fertility of different groups should also have much to do with the motherhood penalty.

This study is a preliminary attempt to probe childbearing costs for women, involving mainly income losses. However, the costs should include not only income losses for suspension or withdrawal from the labor market, but also from the loss of other developmental opportunities. Their psychological pressure also merits attention. Methodologically, future studies can improve the estimate of the motherhood penalty by tracking survey data and multistate life tables. Meanwhile, dividing women by profession, industry and region will likewise be of great significance.


Liu Jinju is from the Division of Public Administration at Beijing City University.

​edited by CHEN MIRONG