Son Preference and Early Childhood Investments in China

Where the fraction of male births is abnormally high, heterogeneity in son preference
would suggest that parents of sons may have a stronger son preference than
parents of daughters. Child sex may have become a stronger signal of parental sex
preferences over time as the cost of sex selection has declined and sex ratios at birth
have increased. In this paper, we build on Meng’s 2009 analysis of ultrasound diffusion
across counties in China, which was found strongly predictive of increased sex ratios
at birth. Here, we consider whether ultrasound diffusion changed the pattern of early
childhood investments in girls versus boys. If parental investments (like sex ratios) respond
to parental sex preferences, postnatal investments in girls should increase with
the diffusion of ultrasound and increased prenatal sex selection. In contrast, the prediction
for investments prior to birth is ambiguous. For pregnancies carried to term,
ultrasound revealed sex as much as six months prior to delivery, enabling gender discrimination
in in utero investments. In contrast, sex selective abortions would tend to
increase in utero investments in girls through preference sorting.
We evaluate these competiting predictions using microdata on investments in children
using the 1992 UNICEF Chinese Children Survey, conducted by the National
Bureau of Statistics. We find no effect of ultrasound access on the gender difference in
postnatal investments. In contrast, we find early neonatal mortality of girls increased
relative to boys with ultrasound access. As neonatal mortality tends to reflect pregnancy
conditions, we infer that prenatal investments for girls carried to term may have
fallen relative to boys once fetal sex was revealed.

Douglas Almond
Hongbin Li
Lingsheng Meng