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Economists analyze impact of family dynamics on academic achievement

| Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Professor Kasey Buckles, Brian and Jeannelle Brady Associate Professor of Economics, delivered a talk to the Economics Club on Tuesday evening titled, “Are Your Siblings Making You Dumber? Evidence from Economics,” about the effects of family size and birth order on the academic achievement of children.

Buckles said there are many dynamics of a family that can have effect on the formation of the children.

“You may have lots of siblings, or you may have very few,” Buckles said. “You can also consider birth order, which is whether you’re one of the older or younger children in your family. There’s even the question of how close you are in age to your siblings.”

Buckles said she has found results through her research that indicate certain factors of sibling and family structure can affect academic outcome.

“So are your siblings really making you dumber? Well, their number and gender probably is not, but if you’re the youngest of a lot of siblings, or your younger siblings are really close to you in age, then probably yes,” Buckles said. “Your siblings may make you have less academic attainment.”

Buckles said her area of research is one a lot of social scientist pursue but that has been neglected by economists.

“I think there are really good reasons for economists to be interested in these questions,” Buckles said. “We think about the problem in different ways, considering things like resource constraint and peer effects. We also have different tools when we begin to try to establish causal relationships.

“The fundamental question of economics is, ‘How do people allocate scarce resources?’ Well, families are a situation where resources can be scarce. If you think about families having budget constraints for their time or their finances, you have to question how those resources get distributed among the different members of the household, and these are the decisions that can affect how people turn out.”

Family size can affect the shaping of the child’s life in a lot of ways, but there are two main channels, Buckles said. Family size can affect how much time parents are able to spend with each child and how much money they are able to allocate for each child’s education and growth.

“The data shows someone from a family of two children is getting one and a half years more education than someone coming from a family of 10 children,” Buckles said. “However, we don’t know whether the big families are causing these differences or if there is something about these families that would indicate the children would get a worse education anyway.”

However, Buckles said, family size is only one of the many types of dimensions that affect family outcomes, and there is evidence other characteristics of families may have a significant effect on the formation of children.

“The question then becomes whether or not being one of the youngest kids in the family is making you dumber, and there is data that suggests that children that are higher in their birth order tend to do worse,” Buckles said. “Looking at families of six, the sixth kid in the family tends to have one year less education than the first-born child inside the same family.”

Buckles said her research is inspired by her own life and its implications extend to almost everyone.

“That’s what I like about researching economics of the family, that almost everyone has a family or family experience,” she said.

Andrew Kuhn, senior co-president of Economics Club, said he thinks professor Buckles takes real world problems and puts them into economic terms.

“She really looks for causation in the things that are happening around the world, and she poses questions that can be applicable to anybody,” Kuhn said.

Guillermo Roque, senior co-president of Economics Club, said Buckles makes sure people realize how things relate to economics, in this case with family outcomes.

“[Her research] is not always something in economics that people research, but she relates it to economics and public policy,” Roque said. “When you get into the real world and you have to vote for president or Congress, you want to make sure you’re choosing someone that’s advocating for what the research actually shows.”

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