Why do the poor have large families?

Updated Nov 14, 2018
As a child growing up in Canada, I wanted nothing more than a big family.

With my mom as one of 11 siblings and my dad as one of ten, observing the joyful chaos of extended family Christmases, Thanksgivings and birthdays was something I longed to experience every day. Nothing made me happier than being surrounded by my big, loving, riotous family.

As I grew older, however, my perspective began to shift. I learned how poverty had marked my parents’ childhoods in Guyana—especially my mother’s—and it confused me. ‘So, why do poor people have more kids?’ I’d wondered.

My mom had often gone hungry so that her siblings could eat, and during the worst of times there just wasn’t enough to go around. It was hard for me not to judge what seemed like carelessness on the part of my grandparents.

But for them, and many parents like them across the Global South, the factors that play into family size are far more complex than a teenager like me was willing to consider.

So—why do impoverished parents in developing countries have more kids?
 
Connecting with large families for answers
Working with World Vision has given me a new lens for family life around the globe. As I’ve seen, there are many reasons why a family affected by poverty may choose to have many children—and why poor countries have high birth rates—ranging from cultural values to issues of social justice. Let’s explore some of the major ones.
 
  1. High child mortality rates. Imagine living in a place where your children’s lives are constantly threatened. There’s not enough nutritious food, limited access to clean water, inadequate housing, poor health care and minimal government support. All of these factors contribute to child mortality and parents in poverty know this keenly. According to the World Health Organization, 5.4 million children under five are dying every year[1], with most of these children in developing countries. Faced with this reality, parents may have more kids, understanding the heartbreaking truth that some of their children simply won’t survive.  
 
  1. Misconceptions about family planning. In many communities, stigmas against contraception still exist. These beliefs can originate from a variety of sources, including breakdowns in public health education, cultural biases and even skepticism about the motives of the government in controlling family size. Often, they contribute to the cultivation of fear and confusion over using certain family planning methods.[2]
 
  1. Lack of access to health services. It’s not always misconceptions that prevent people from practicing family planning—sometimes it’s the lack of accessible health care.[3] For some, health clinics are located far from their homes and villages, making it difficult to travel to get needed support. In especially rural areas, a lack of infrastructure, roads and transportation can also be a barrier toward receiving professional medical care.
 
  1. Patriarchal values. To Canadians, having fewer children—or no children—is an increasingly familiar norm and the conversation around women’s reproductive rights is one that’s top of mind.  But in many countries, the severity and pervasiveness of patriarchal values is still an overwhelming reality. In these circumstances, men can often make the decisions for their wives and families, including whether or not to use contraception. As a result, women are often left without any control over how many kids they’ll end up having.[4]
 
  1. Forced early marriage. Forced early marriage is any marriage where either person is under 18 and hasn’t given their full consent to be married.[5] It happens for many reasons and teenage girls are by far the most vulnerable. When a girl is married young, her childbearing years start much earlier, meaning—among other complications—she’s likely to have more kids.
 
  1. Lack of education. Girls who marry and begin their families in adolescence are much less likely to finish school and go on to model educational values for their children. They are also likely to have more kids, making it difficult to afford the cost of education for each child. [6] On the other hand, women who go further in their education tend to have fewer children. They often marry later in life and are more likely to prioritize their own children’s education, understanding the financial investment it will require.
 
  1. Religious beliefs. In many faiths, children are seen as an enormous blessing. Religious texts and scripture can enforce this idea and often act as a strong guiding influence in people’s lives.[7] When a life philosophy is engrained in the belief that your offspring will be provided for and that children are incredible gifts, it stands to reason that couples would embrace the idea of a large family.
 
  1. Social reputation. In a culture or community where children are viewed as blessings, the larger the family—the more blessed you are. In many parts of the Global South, couples without children are stigmatized and looked down upon. Big families are viewed as powerful and if a woman is unable to bear children, it’s not uncommon for her husband to abandon her or begin a family with someone else.[8]
 
  1. Family legacy. For many, the desire to preserve lineage, history and a family name can feel like a natural, human instinct. It’s not uncommon for parents to be partial to passing on their own genetics to continue their family legacy.
 
  1. Limited finances. Families in poverty, particularly those who make their living through agriculture, may have more kids as a way of supporting the family’s livelihood. Children are often tasked with chores like walking to collect water, gardening, field work and animal care, even when they’re very young. In more dire situations, children may enter the labour force—often illegally—to earn more income for the family’s survival.
     
  2. Care for elders. As children grow up, they not only carry on their family’s legacy, but also the responsibility of providing for and protecting their parents and siblings. This is especially important in countries without strong governmental safety nets. In these cases, having more kids may provide an extra sense of security for parents, with the added hope that one day, one or more children may be successful enough to lift the entire family out of poverty.[9]
 
World Vision’s response through family planning programs
It’s clear that, for all the reasons an impoverished family may end up with many children, there are definite challenges that follow. With their resources spread thin, large families are less likely to afford education for their children, meaning those kids will likely grow up to have lower earning potential and be more likely to repeat the cycle of poverty.

But usually, it’s women who bear the highest cost of having many children.
Take Florence Achcirocan in Uganda. At just 36 years old, she’s mother to seven kids, ranging from age one up to age 20. And these are the ones who survived. Florence has also lost five babies—three at birth and two as infants.
 
A mother with four of her small children sitting outside their home in a village in Uganda.
Florence Achcirocan, a 36-year-old mother to seven children, at home with her kids in Uganda. Florence has lost five babies—three at birth and two as infants. Photo: World Vision

“I want to stop giving birth,” says Florence. “Right now, I face so many challenges… My children had to drop out of school. They lack clothing. I can’t provide for their basic needs,” she continues. “Because of my health challenges, I’m old enough to stop. I want to go to the health centre and find out about family planning.”

Pregnancy takes a substantial toll on a woman’s body—whether she lives in Canada or anywhere else—but the risks are more pronounced in developing countries, where access to quality health care isn’t a foregone conclusion. (In Canada, a woman’s lifetime risk of maternal death is 1 in 8,800; compare that to Uganda, where it’s 1 in 47.[10])

When a woman lives in difficult conditions, without a varied diet or access to prenatal vitamins, back-to-back pregnancies leave her especially vulnerable. Her nutritional stores, especially iron and calcium, are likely to become depleted and she will be less equipped to breastfeed her baby, meaning the child’s long-term health may be compromised as well.

The health risks are even more extreme for teenage mothers, who are more likely to become malnourished during pregnancy—their bodies are still growing, even as they sustain the child growing within them. With pelvises not fully developed, girls face higher chances of complications in delivery.

Healthy timing and spacing of pregnancy
Educating women and teens about the importance of family planning and methods of contraception could prevent as many as one in three maternal deaths and improve the survival rate of children.[11] For this reason and others, World Vision incorporates family planning into our programs in the communities where we work, where it’s appropriate, encouraging healthy timing and spacing of pregnancy. That means encouraging women and their partners to:
  • Wait at least two years after a live birth before attempting to conceive,
  • Wait at least six months after a miscarriage before attempting to conceive, and
  • Wait until age 18 or older before conceiving for the first time.[12]
Beside these guiding timelines, World Vision works alongside community partners to clear up fears and misconceptions about family planning. We help women understand their options when it comes to birth control, so they can choose a method that works best for them and support them in the decision if needed.


To reduce of the rate of malnutrition in children, this young mother from Cambodia receives information on feeding and vaccinations. Photo: World Vision/Makara Eam
 
While educating women themselves has always been the focus of this kind of work, family planning is a complex issue, influenced by family, culture and religion. Women may not always be the chief decision makers in their own reproductive health. For this reason, World Vision involves other players in the education process as well.

Partnering with faith leaders
Family planning happens at the household level. Still, would-be parents are influenced by their community’s norms and values—which are often intrinsically linked to its religious beliefs. By equipping faith leaders with facts about the benefits of healthy timing and spacing of pregnancy, and contextualizing those principles within scriptures and social teaching, clergy are equipped to use their platforms to positively influence the health of their congregations.

"[Working with faith leaders] is a great way to address tough issues in a context that really resonates and gets to the deepest underlying norms and beliefs in the community,” says Andrea Kaufmann, Senior Advisor of Faith and External Engagement at World Vision International. “It invites […] people to share their own voices and experiences. As faith communities we accept children lovingly and we also want them to experience healthy, flourishing lives in every way."

Small group coaching
World Vision works with married couples in small discussion groups, where they learn about the benefits of birth spacing and the importance of gender equality in decision-making. It’s a great place to ask questions in a non-threatening atmosphere. At the end of the sessions, couples who decide they would like to implement family planning measures in their own homes are referred to health centres for more support and counselling. In many cases, these couples have gone on to advocate within their communities, encouraging others to space their children in a way that will ensure health and stability for the whole family.

Educating men
Men play a crucial role in birth spacing—particularly in traditional, patriarchal cultures. World Vision runs workshops where fathers are coached in gender equality, sharing childcare responsibilities and upholding the health of their partners and children as they make family planning decisions together.[13]

Working with youth
World Vision empowers young people with information, helping them make life choices that will set them up well for the future. We coach teens to understand their rights, delay early marriage and advocate for the elimination of forced marriage in their communities. We also support comprehensive, evidence-based sexuality education that meets international standards and includes information about the types and uses of contraceptives to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies[14] as well as the important options of abstinence and marital fidelity.
 
Strengthening health care systems
World Vision works in communities to support health systems that are already in place. This includes training health workers to provide counselling in family planning and birth spacing, and ensuring facilities have the equipment and supplies they need to provide women and girls with proper care before, during and after pregnancy.

A young mom places her baby inside a straw basket to be weighed.
This health care centre in Cambodia provides a place for this mother in Cambodia to learn about family planning and effective ways to keep her child healthy. Photo: Makara Eam
 
The essentials: Equality and informed choice
I still love being part of an extended family gathering—whether at home with my own clan, or on my visits overseas with World Vision. But I’ve learned just how much poverty can complicate the conversation about family size for parents around the world.

My parents had the opportunity to attend school and later, university. They moved from Guyana to Canada, where they rooted and raised a family of their own. And I’m grateful that as a Canadian, I’ve never had to worry about going hungry a day in my life.
  A family portrait photograph from the late 1970s of a large Guyanese family sitting in a living room.
“In the end, though, the conversation has less to do with the actual size of a family and more to do with information and choice.” Photo: Author’s family archives

In the end, though, the conversation has less to do with the actual size of a family and more to do with information and choice. In every part of the world, women and girls deserve to feel heard and to have ownership over what happens with their bodies. Men deserve an education on why that’s important, so that they can support their partners and build families they’re able to help care for. And everyone—whether their family is large, or small—deserves the information and autonomy to make informed choices about how many children they bring into this world.

You can support new and expecting moms with things like prenatal vitamins and education. Learn more.  
 
[1] World Health Organization https://www.who.int/gho/child_health/mortality/mortality_under_five_text/en/
[2] Interview with World Vision Canada staff - Kioko Munyao, Asrat Tolossa, 2018
[3] Interview with World Vision Canada staff - Amanuel Gidebo, 2018
[4] Interview with World Vision Canada staff - Amanuel Gidebo
[6] Interview with World Vision Canada staff - Kioko Munyao, 2018
[7] Interview with World Vision Canada staff - Andrea Kaufmann, 2018
[8] Interview with World Vision Canada staff - Asrat Tolossa, 2018
[9] Interview with World Vision Canada staff - Kioko Munyao, 2018
[12] According to Asrat Tolossa.
[13] Interview with World Vision Canada staff - Amanuel Gidebo, 2018