Marital-Status Discrimination Reduces Fertility in China

January 23, 2020

Shawn Fremstad

Building on recent posts by Dean Baker in his Beat the Press Blog (responding to NYT and Washington Post here and Ross Douthat here) that debunk the idea that there is a “demographic crisis” in China, there’s also an important family justice aspect to fertility in China. 

Although Douthat attributes China’s fertility rate (1.6 births per woman) to “cruel policy choices,” particularly the one-child policy, he doesn’t mention that these choices include widespread discrimination against unmarried mothers. As NPR recently reported, unmarried parents in China are often “stuck in a legal gray zone where they are unable to access basic public services for themselves and their children.” In many Chinese provinces, unmarried mothers have to pay fines for having a child, and/or face barriers to “hukou, or household registration, akin to a social security number allowing them to go to school and access services such as health care.” Beyond these legal barriers and penalties, unmarried mothers face severe social stigma in China. 

Other richer Asian countries with low fertility rates — like Japan (1.37), Singapore (1.22), and South Korea (0.98) — also combine cruel policy choices that penalize unmarried parents with severe social stigma. Given this, it’s not surprising that only about 2 percent of all births in these countries are to unmarried parents. (China doesn’t report the share of births that are non-marital, but outside experts put it at under 5 percent). By contrast, France and Sweden have higher fertility rates (just under 1.9) than most of the OECD countries (including the United States, just over 1.7) and China, and more than half of births in France and Sweden are to unmarried parents. 

China and the other three Asian countries have been slowly moving to reduce legal and social discrimination against unmarried parents, in part due to concern about population decline. They should do much more to treat unmarried parents fairly, but they should do it for the right reasons. Discrimination on the basis of marital and family status is unjust, and particularly harmful to women and the children of unmarried parents.

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