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Where did all the mothers go?

Welcome to “Dumb Ideas that Changed the World.” The views expressed are solely those of the host and do not reflect the opinions of this station or its funders.


Many of our dumb ideas have a common theme: short-term thinking. The grandaddy of them all may be China’s one-child policy.


Despite thousands of years of rich history, mainland China faced serious poverty in the 1970s. Its huge population prompted a strict one-child policy in 1979 under leader Deng Xiaoping. The goal was fewer children and more people in the workforce. Fertility cratered, and the millions of childless workers jumpstarted China’s rise toward modernization. Large year-over-year gains in economic growth lifted millions out of poverty. But at a cost.


Dr. Chang-Su Russell writes, “Government-backed commissions were created to enforce compliance...” Families who had a second baby faced steep fines. If they couldn’t pay, the child could be denied schooling and health care. Worse yet were forced abortions, infanticide, and mass sterilization that produced nothing but misery.


As bad as it was for human-rights, it was also bad social policy. Any demographer could have foreseen the long-term consequences. China’s aging population created a severe dependency ratio of retirees-to-workers, a real-estate recession, and 20 percent unemployment among young workers. There is serious concern for the economy, long-term.


The government reversed course in 2016 with a two-child policy, and then a three-child policy in 2021. Just two months after that they removed all penalties on family size. But the one-child norm was already engrained in society. Today the country has 37 million more men than women, handicapping marriage and family. The total population has declined for two years straight, and pro-natalist policies have had no effect thus far.


It's too bad that a dumb idea from 45 years ago could cause so much damage. But that’s what you get with short-term thinking.


I’m Jeff Gentry


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Best reference:

Su-Russell, C., & Sanner, C. (2023). Chinese childbearing decision-making in mainland China in the post-one-child-policy era. Family Process, 62(1), 302–318. https://doi.org/10.1111/famp.12772


Dumb Ideas that Changed the World copyright 2024 by Jeff Gentry. All rights reserved.

Host of Dumb Ideas the Changed the World
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