Frontiers of the family: fertility, marriage, and human capital in Quebec 1620–1970
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Frontiers of the family: fertility, marriage, and human capital in Quebec 1620–1970


The last two centuries have seen dramatic shifts in labor and demography: a precipitous drop in fertility rates, a dramatic increase in human capital, and the economic empowerment of women. Economic theorists often hypothesize that these transformations played a vital role in the transition to modern economic growth. This dissertation uses historical vital records from the Canadian province of Quebec and applied microeconomic methods to test the assumptions that underpin these theories. First, it shows that parents did not target a family size before the demographic transition. Second, it shows that family size only had a modest impact on the accumulation of human capital. Third, it shows that assortative marriage, unlike family size, mattered long before many might expect. Quebec, with its unusual demographic regime and exceptionally high quality demographic data, provides solid empirical evidence to support these claims. The IMPQ (l’Infrastructure intégrée des microdonnées historiques de la population québécoise) is a large new database of family reconstitutions from baptism, burial, and marriage records (IMPQ 2020). It integrates two previous databases, the BALSAC database and the RPQA (Project Balsac 2020, PRDH 2020). While the dataset is still being extended, as of writing it contains 1.8 million unique births, 0.8 million unique deaths, and 4.2 million unique marriages from 1481–1992 (though births and deaths are limited to a particular region after 1849, there are very few records from before 1620, and the births and marriages are only available through 1971). Moreover, in those records a total of 2.8 million other individuals are mentioned besides the main participants, which provides additional observations over time for many people besides their own vital events. The first chapter of my dissertation, co-authored with Gregory Clark and Neil Cummins and published in Demography, considers the demographic transition. Was this decline in fertility due to changing economic incentives or was it a more fundamental change in the ability or willingness of parents to control fertility? To bring contemporary methods to this old debate, we use the natural experiment of twins to test if pretransition parents targeted an optimal family size. We find strong evidence of no fertility response to an additional child in England, France, and Quebec before the demographic transition. This research led directly to the second chapter of my dissertation. A dramatic increase in human capital was crucial for the transition to modern economic growth. It is often theorized that a key mechanism behind this increase was a trade-off between the quantity of children and the quality of their human capital. However, there are few papers that have estimated the size of the trade-off in a society just on the cusp of modernity. I use twins as a source of exogenous variation in quantity to estimate the trade-off in Quebec 1620–1850. I find that one additional child born decreased the literacy rate (proxied by signatures) of their older siblings by 0.6 percentage points. While statistically significant and robust, this estimate is too small to permit a large increase in human capital. The trade-off present before Quebec industrialized appears insufficient to initiate modern economic growth by itself. While the findings of the first two chapters suggest that parents had little influence on child outcomes through fertility decisions, the third chapter shows that they had a significant influence through their choice of spouse. The final chapter in my dissertation asks the question: when did marriage become assortative on economic ability? While past research has considered if rising female labor force participation increased assortment, we know surprisingly little about marriage matching from before the late 20th century. Using a large new dataset of vital records from Quebec, I find that marriage was as assortative in the 1830s as it was in the 1960s. Not only was this assortment strong, it was on the human capital of individual men and women, not merely between families or social classes. Finally, I show that the human capital of both men and women mattered equally for child outcomes, confirming that assortment mattered for social mobility long before the late 20th century.

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