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Marriage, Mortgages, and Male-to-Female Ratios

My family (that's me in the middle) sitting on the stoop of my parents' first home, about 1960. My mother's parents had given them the money to buy the house, just as they had paid for my father's medical schooling. Over the years, he earned more and more, while she cared for us, and they "traded up" to nicer homes. When they divorced in the early 1970s, however, the question was: would she get anything? This is the problem women in China now face.

The Economist had an article last month that puzzled me a bit.  They were reporting on the relationship between marriage trends and housing prices in China.  In that culture, prospective husbands must own a home in order to marry; brides who accept a “naked marriage” (the common term for a union where the husband brings no property) face substantial disapproval from friends and family.

Home ownership and marriage are both even more important in China than in the West.  Some 80% of Chinese are married, compared to 68% of Americans.  Fully 80% of Chinese own their home, compared to 62% of Americans.

From The Economist: "Married to the Mortgage" July 13, 2013.

The Economist suggests that competition between males for scarce females–because China’s female infanticide rate is shockingly high–is driving up the price of housing. Key to the argument was a graph from a paper by Shang-jin Wei (Columbia University), Xiaobo Zhang (International Food Policy Research Institute), Yin Liu of Tsinghua University.  The graph shows that regions with the highest male-to-female ratios (which is to say, the places where female infanticide has been most prevalent) also have the highest housing prices. So, the inference is that the female scarcity is driving up housing prices.

And maybe so. But I was struck by the potential for the causality to run in a different direction. Generally, the reasons given for female infanticide have been linked to the presumed poverty of the parents. In India, where a daughter must have a dowry to marry and, according to tradition, will never earn money to support herself, the birth of a girl child represents an enormous financial burden for poor parents.  Yet, about seven years ago, studies began to come out suggesting that ultrasound technology was being used by prosperous families to identify female fetuses and abort them.  People were shocked that, in the absence of grinding poverty as an explanatory factor, parents would still do this. One reason often given was that family property could not be passed down to daughters, only sons, and that parents relied on sons to take care of them financially in old age (while the son’s wife empties their bedpan).

Similarly, the stories you hear about female infanticide in China are all about poor rural women drowning newborns in buckets or whatever.  But this chart suggests that female infanticide is positively associated with wealth, at least in terms of the value of real estate. All the cultural commentary points in a similar direction.  In Chinese tradition, family name and property go to the son.  So, in a one-child culture, families with sons would be better able to hang on to their wealth, wouldn’t they?  So, over time, would wealthier families be more prone to killing female babies?  They have more to protect.

Maybe female infanticide has been more commonly practiced among the wealthy.  Or, even worse, the practice of female infanticide actually makes those people wealthier because they have been able to hold on to riches by having sons.

The Chinese government took an ominous step in spring 2011, trying to discourage women from marrying for property.  The Supreme Court issued a new interpretation of the Marriage Law, declaring that, going forward, in a divorce, the person whose name is on the title gets to keep it.  This law reversed more than 50 years of what Americans would call “community property” law in China.  Now, even if the girl’s parents buy the house or, as has been happening more lately, the girl herself buys the house, the man might still end up owning the asset in the event of a divorce.  Why?  Because even if the woman or her parents buy the house, the title is usually in his name (yes!  this happens!). The same would be true if the man came into the marriage with a home and a mortgage, but the wife’s income contributed substantially to the payments–or to “trading up” later on. The head of household’s name is on the paperwork:  even in the cities, 80% of households are reported to be headed by men.  So the new struggle is to get joint title, which flies in the face of normal practice, is seen as a blow to the husband’s manhood, and so on.

Part of the point here is to encourage marriage, believe it or not. Declining birth rates and the dearth of females in their child-bearing years already promise to combine into a fiasco of violent men and scarce labor in the coming years.  This fertility decline is increasingly seen as the Chinese government’s number one problem and it seems to be manifesting itself in a campaign to roll back women’s rights, reduce their commitment to work and independence–and take away property rights.  The focus is on educated women–the very ones who might buy homes–because the government wants a “high quality” labor force.

But it may backfire. Some experts like Leta Hong Fincher, are predicting that Chinese women will increasingly turn against marriage, just as women in South Korea and other Asian countries have done, and instead work to buy their own homes.


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