'The Number and Quality of Children': Education and Marital Fertility in Early-Twentieth Century Iowa
Smith, Daniel Scott, Journal of Social History
Using remarkably rich data on the extent and type of schooling collected by the state census of Iowa in 1915, this essay explores the role of education in structuring the transition to low fertility in the United States. Its point of departure is a pioneering study that employed these data published for Iowa counties within a framework concerned with the quality of children. By also using information on individuals, the article attempts to isolate the distinctive role of schooling in influencing the fertility behavior of married women in Iowa.(1)
In American demographic history, very little is known directly about the impact of schooling on the fertility of women. Similarly, in American educational history, scarcely any research has focused on the impact of variation in education on any later behavior of individuals as adults. In addition to a narrow focus on educational institutions, the absence of appropriate data accounts for this gap in the history of education.(2) In 1940 and thereafter, the U.S. Census recorded the number of years of schooling for a sample of the population. Before that date, scholars must rely on the extremely time-consuming method of record linkage to tie status or behavior in adult life to the schooling received as a child.(3)
Education figures centrally in the general literature on the transition from high to low fertility for political, empirical, and theoretical reasons. First, education is, unlike other determinants of fertility, under the control of government policy makers. Since the 1950s, much of the research on the process of fertility decline has been framed by the need to curtail the rapid rates of population growth in Third World societies. In principle, the state can independently intervene to alter the extent and change the content of education. Thus, even though the magnitude of the impact of schooling on fertility might be less than other factors, it is important because it can be manipulated.
Second, education usually makes a substantial difference on fertility in studies across societies, over time, and within populations. While the relationship is not universal, it is robust. Fertility is typically found to be negatively related to the extent of schooling.(4) Education can affect more than fertility within marriage, making it necessary to control for a multiplicity of other demographic variables, especially nuptiality. Variation in schooling frequently is also intertwined with other attributes that capture socio-economic development. Thus, the relationship must be assessed within a framework that includes the several other factors that structure fertility behavior.
Third, the potential importance of education to fertility is complex and multifaceted. Given the significance of the topic, scholars from several social-science disciplines and theoretical traditions have offered diverse conceptual frameworks. The impact can occur later on adults of childbearing age or as the response to a change in the schooling of children themselves.(5) The role of schooling has been interpreted narrowly, or at the other extreme, has been advanced as the key to the revolution in fertility.(6) Current wisdom on population policy, as exemplified by the 1994 United Nations' conference in Cairo, Egypt, emphasizes the importance of education in demographic change, especially for the behavior of women.(7)
The Place of Iowa in Fertility and Educational Transitions:
In 1940, when the Census first recorded and tabulated data on the school attainment of adults, American fertility, which began its decline early in the nineteenth century, had plummeted to a level at which the population was barely replacing itself. At the end of the Great Depression, there was the familiar inverse relationship between education and both nuptiality and the number of children ever born. In order to gain insight into the role of education in the decline of American fertility, better information is needed for earlier phases of the transition. …