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Children, Families, and Marriage

No subject better exemplifies the importance of demographic research than the factors affecting the fertility of a nation and its investments in children. Children are nurtured in families and they are affected by the forces that influence the size, structure and social arrangements within families and households. Understanding the changes in those structures and how they influence children are key topics in demographic research. These social institutions also affect adults in many ways. We need to better understand the incentives to form and sustain family structures, and how and why the functions of families change. Marriage, as a distinct social institution, has for years been a focus of study by several PRC research associates, who analyze its functions, assess its limits, compare its attributes to cohabitational unions, and study its stability and its value to spouses, children, and society.

We identify three categories within the research topic of Children, Families, and Marriage on which to focus:




Magne Mogstad, motivated by the work of former PRC Associate Gary Becker(Becker and Lewis, 1973), examines the seminal Quantity-Quality model of fertility. He and his co-author explore the implications of allowing for a non-linear relationship between family size and child outcome and find that, contrary to more recent work, the conclusion of no effect of family size does not hold up if the linear specification in family size is relaxed. The work suggests a tradeoff between quantity and quality in large families and complementarities in small families. Kevin Murphy continues to study fertility patterns and their relationship to economic growth, motivated by the observation that negligible changes in population size and economic well-being over many centuries have been followed by quite extraordinary growth in both over the past two hundred years. This contrasts dramatically with the Malthusian steady-state equilibrium patterns of a level population and an iron law of wages and no growth in per capita incomes implied by the diminishing returns of that Malthusian system. Murphy suggests that the circumstances of agricultural societies with low population density and low rates of growth have given way to the highly dense urban communities characterized by economies of scale in research and development, specialization, and investments in human capital. Michael Reynolds, together with NORC colleagues, is conducting IADB-funded evaluations of national conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs in Honduras and Nicaragua to assess both compliance as well the education and health effects on rural, low-come mothers and children. For these studies, Reynolds oversaw the collection of data from more than 4,000 households as well as a team of interviewers conducting KIIs with national, provincial and local officials to be able to offer recommendations on how the IADB and the national governments could improve households' access and increase the program's impact.

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Investments in Children Across the Life Course

The issues of expenditures on children, of the stages of their growth best suited for efficient investments in their human capital, of family influences on their development and life transitions, of the social and structural resources that bear on their well-being, and a host of related topics of considerable intellectual and policy import are under study by Associates of the PRC. The over-arching question of Ariel Kalil's research is how children develop and how parents function in stressful or disadvantageous social environments. In her recent work Kalil focuses on the impact on adolescents of growing up in a cohabiting family in contrast to a married family structure, and the psychological impact on the adolescent of a single mother's employment transitions. Amy Claessens also focuses on the developmental trajectories of children; she examines how out-of-home contexts such as child care centers and preschool affect child well-being. She also examines mathematics education for young children and how reforms influence the mathematics environment. The recognition of the importance of non-cognitive capabilities and their effect on success in the labor market at later ages is one of several themes of James Heckman's recent work. Heckman's essays and analysis of the efficacy of investments in skills at various ages and life stages are among the most influential of the work from our Center. He is also examining links between different stages of the life course. He has documented that the estimated rates of return to skill investments are dramatically higher for pre-school children than for school-aged children, but lower yet for post-school-aged mid-life adults in whom remedial schooling and job training programs are embedded. Heckman's HighScope Perry Preschool Midlife Health study, with study director Michael Reynolds, examines how early stage investments impact later life outcomes, particularly in health and in social and economic resources available for retirement. New to the research is a biomarker component so that precursors to disease can be identified and tracked over time. Robert Michael adopts a different research strategy, looking at family behavior across three generations, using an NICHD supplement to the 1958 British Birth Cohort data on which he was P.I., and focusing on children's vocabulary, reading, and math test scores.

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Marriage, Family Structure, and the Family

Linda Waite has focused much of her recent research on marriage as a viable and efficacious social institution. She emphasizes evidence on the health benefits of marriage. Waite, as PI of the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project (NSHAP) has developed a new line of research that examines the extent to which the health effects of marriage and other social network connections can be identified with biological data. Her earlier work with Affiliate Barbara Schneider focused on the complex interplay among working parents and their children and the ways in which the parents prepare their children for future careers. Affiliate Rob Townsend's Thailand survey investigates the role of the social institution of the family, including the extended family, in offering insurance and credit to its members. He places these functions in a context of a village and a community that also enjoys more formal financial institutions and the structures of certain markets. The relationship of economic development in the transference of functions from the informal social institutions to the more formal market institutions is but one of the focuses of his work that includes the creation of a major new data resource, funded through NICHD and NSF, and publicly available. Kerwin Charles and Erik Hurst have examined the nature, and consequences, of marital sorting by parental wealth and, broadly, the correlation of wealth across generations. Hurst has focused on wealth dynamics of American families and how they vary by such factors as race.

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