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Chinese-Americans gave birth to more sons than usual during the US recession

The US economic recession that began in 2008 and saw many people lose homes and jobs also led to an increase in the number of boys born to Chinese-Americans, according to a recent study in the peer-reviewed journal Economics Letters.

Researchers Soohyung Lee of South Korea’s Sogang University and Chiara Orsini, visiting researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science, examined births to US residents with ethnic roots in China, India and South Korea, groups well known for their son preferences. In these countries, the ratio of boys to girls at birth consistently exceeds what’s considered the “natural” level—105 boys per 100 girls, or about 51.2% of live births.

Their study looked at births for the periods before and during the recession—January 2005 to December 2007 and January 2008 to December 2010 —as defined by the US nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research.

Compared with non-Hispanic whites, who “exhibit no son preference,” they found that the recession appeared to have increased the use of sex-selective abortion among Chinese-Americans. Overall the recession “increased the number of newborn boys born to Chinese-Americans by 1% (pdf, p.3),” the study said.

The changes in sex ratio at birth were more significant further into the recession, and also differed depending on birth order. For a first child the share of male births was 51.5% while for a second birth boys made up 51.9%. (For a third child, births were already skewed more greatly in favor of boys—they accounted for 53.2% of those births prior to the recession, which translates to about 114 boys for 100 girls.)

Chinese parents have a long history of seeing sons as a better investment in the family future, both for their ability to provide manual labor when China was a much more rural economy, and because aging Chinese parents traditionally live with sons. The research suggests that while such preferences fade with urbanization or migration to a developed country, they can be renewed in the face of a severe economic shock.

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