Does it pay to be the first-born if you’re a girl?

Revisiting Donald Appleyard's liveable streets project in San Francisco in the early 70s

I’m gob-smacked by the findings of this paper, The Demand for Sons. No, it doesn’t pay to be the first-born in the family if you’re a girl, at least not in the US. Preference for sons is not limited to China and India.

The paper is by Gordon Dahl and Enrico Moretti from the University of California and was published in 2008 in The Review of Economic Studies.

They find that “first-born girls and their siblings are more likely to live in families where income is lower, the poverty rate is higher, welfare participation is higher, home ownership is lower, and child support payments following a divorce are lower”.

The authors ask this question: do parents in the US have preferences regarding the gender of their children and, if so, does this have negative consequences for daughters versus sons?

Here’s part of the abstract:

In this paper, we show that child gender affects the marital status, family structure, and fertility of a significant number of American families.

Overall, a first-born daughter is significantly less likely to be living with her father compared to a first-born son. Three factors are important in explaining this gap.

First, women with first-born daughters are less likely to marry. Strikingly, we also find evidence that the gender of a child in-utero affects shotgun marriages. Among women who have taken an ultrasound test during pregnancy, mothers who have a girl are less likely to be married at delivery than those who have a boy.

Second, parents who have first-born girls are significantly more likely to be divorced.

Third, after a divorce, fathers are much more likely to obtain custody of sons compared to daughters.

These three factors have serious negative income and educational consequences for affected children.

What explains these findings? In the last part of the paper, we turn to the relationship between child gender and fertility to help sort out parental gender bias from competing explanations for our findings. We show that the number of children is significantly higher in families with a first-born girl.

Here’s the last para from the conclusion discussing the implications of having a first-born sister for siblings:

Regardless of how one interprets our findings on family structure and fertility, the serious negative economic and educational effects for children whose first-born sibling is a girl are interesting in their own right. Because of the effects of gender on family structure, first-born girls and their siblings live in families where income is lower, the poverty rate is higher, welfare participation is higher, home ownership is lower, and child support payments following a divorce are lower. In addition, second-born children in first-born girl families have lower educational attainment compared to second-born children in first-born boy families. While our results indicate that some of the negative consequences of a first-born daughter affect younger siblings of both genders, girls are overall more likely to be exposed to these negative effects

A full copy of the paper is here.

P.S. that study by Donald Appleyard had an enormous influence on me when I was a student. It seems it’s had a big impact ever since it was published.

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