In October 2007, responding to the problem of very low birthrates in the country, Ilia II. of Georgia, the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, announced that he would personally baptize any third and subsequent child born to Orthodox families from that time onwards. This promise seems to have had a considerable impact on the reproduction behavior of Georgians.
According to the National Statistics Office of Georgia (NSOG), the number of births increased from about 49,000 in 2007 to about 57,000 in 2008 and 63,000 in 2009. This is a remarkable 28% increase in two years’ time, while the number of births from 2000 to 2007 had been fluctuating between 46000 and 49000. At the end of 2008, the Patriarch for the first time baptized thousands of babies at the Sameba Cathedral, and the tradition continues until today.
In March 2009, the BBC brought the enthusiastic headline: “Church leader sparks Georgian baby boom”. The article states that “two years after having one of the lowest birth rates in the world, Georgia is enjoying something of a baby boom, following an intervention from the country's most senior cleric”. The results are, in the words of the Georgian Orthodox Church, "a miracle". A report with a similar message was published by CNN in April 2010 in which the Patriarch himself claims credit for the surge in births: "I have already baptized about 5,000 children. […] Parents decided to give birth to these children because they had a chance to be the Patriarch's godchildren."
The BBC also interviewed the head of Georgia's civil registry, Giorgi Vashadze. More profanely, he attributed the increased birth rates to accelerated economic growth and increased employment in the years after the Rose Revolution: "Who is now creating families? People who five years ago were out of work," he said. "Previously, they had no income. They could not get married. Today they are working. They have salaries… So I think this is a major factor." According to the NSOG, Georgia did indeed experience remarkable growth in real GDP by about 10 % in 2006 and 2007, going down in 2008 due to war with Russia but still remaining significantly higher than in the previous years.
According to the Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC), 94% of the Georgians consider the Patriarch to be the most trustworthy man in the society, and likewise, the church is the most trusted institution in Georgia. Therefore, the opinion of the Georgian public can be easily swayed in favor of the church. But is the Patriarch really responsible for the stunning increase of the birth rate in Georgia? Using the toolbox of quantitative economic analysis, I wanted to find out…
A NATURAL EXPERIMENT
Religion as an important driver of socio-economic developments can be traced back to Max Weber’s famous 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, relating the differences in per-capita GDP in Europe to the respective shares of Protestants and Catholics in those countries. Ever since a huge body of literature has elicited connections between religious beliefs and economic behavior. For example, McCleary and Barro (2003) show that countries with high levels of religious observance (operationalized as attendance at religious services) tend to experience lower GDP growth. Crabtree (2010) explores the link between the share of the religious population of a country and its and per-capita incomes. Lipford, McCormick, and Tollison (1993) look at the connection between the rates of church membership and crime and various demographic numbers like divorce, marriage, and fertility.
In our setting, the announcement of the Catholicos-Patriarch’s initiative yields what economists call a “natural experiment”. In the laboratory, it is possible to define a treatment group and a control group, yet many economic questions which are about society as a whole cannot be answered in the lab. A natural experiment is a situation where for natural reasons there is something like a treatment and something like a control group. In the problem at hand, the majority of Orthodox Christians (OCs), making up 84% of the population, can be considered a treatment group, as they are the only ones to whom the Patriarch’s initiative appeals. The Non-Orthodox Christian (NOC) ethnic minorities, such as Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and other congregations can be considered as a control group if we assume that the Patriarch’s announcement will not affect their reproduction behavior. The majority of the NOC population consists of Armenians and Azerbaijanis who comprise about 15 % share of the total population of Georgia. Armenians are members of the Armenian Apostolic Church and Azerbaijanis are Shiite Muslims. The figure shows the composition of the Georgian population by religious belief – the brighter the color, the higher the share of the NOC population (except for the occupied territories, which are not included in the analysis).
Using a methodology called difference-in-differences (DID), we can identify whether the religious leader’s initiative had a causal impact on the birth rates in Georgia.
This analysis uses household-level survey data provided by CRRC Georgia. Among other household demographic characteristics, it contains information about how many babies families have and in which year they were born. The data ranges from 2000 to 2010. Moreover, the dataset contains information about the parents’ religious affiliations and the intensity of religious beliefs. From this data, we constructed two kinds of panel datasets. Dataset 1 contains information about the birth rates in a given year. Yet the Patriarch’s initiative only applied to the third and subsequent children in a family, so that in Dataset 2 we look separately only at births of third and subsequent children. In line with the DID methodology, we compared the number of births within both groups before and after the policy intervention (the first difference) and then subtracted the change in the control group from the change in the treatment group (the second difference) — hence the name difference-in-differences. For reasons that cannot be discussed here, what remains after the subtractions can be considered a measure of the causal effect of the church leader’s initiative on the birth rate.
RESULTS AND INTERPRETATIONS
The DID methodology was applied to Dataset 1 and Dataset 2 separately. To our surprise, in the case of Dataset 1 the estimated “Patriarch coefficient” is virtually zero in magnitude and not statistically significant. This means that a causal impact of church intervention on the overall fertility trend in Georgia cannot be found in the data. Likewise, in the case of Dataset 2, the coefficient is negative(!) and not statistically significant. This indicates that the church policy did have no effect on the birth rates of the third and subsequent children either.
One possible explanation for this result could be peer effects on fertility. That is, the Patriarch’s announcement may have had also an effect on the reproductive behavior of the NOC groups, though in an indirect way. The NOC population may have observed their neighbors having more children and wanted to catch up. It may be also the case that Patriarch’s announcement induced wide media coverage of the issue of fertility and thus affected OC and NOC groups alike. However, the way NOC groups live in Georgia and their language skills make it unlikely that there were such effects. The majority of the NOC population resides segregated in specific regions of Georgia with little or no contact with the Georgian OC population. Therefore, it is unlikely that fertility peer effects could have been strong. Moreover, the majority of these groups are not literate in Georgian and therefore the Georgian media’s coverage of fertility is unlikely to have had such strong repercussions.
Another explanation would be that the NOC regions of Georgia enjoyed better economic growth rates after 2007 than the OC regions, which, as reproduction in a country like Georgia is positively correlated with economic conditions, would make the effect of the Patriarch’s initiative “invisible”. We did some further analysis, based on the data only for Tbilisi, where the proportion of the NOC population is different and found that differences in economic growth between the treatment and the control groups are unlikely to make the Patriarch’s influence disappear (if there was one in the first place).
To sum up, despite the claims of the Orthodox Church of Georgia, economic analysis does not support that the Patriarch’s initiative was instrumental in raising the birth rate in Georgia. Instead, it is indeed plausible that the dramatic increase in birth rates could have been triggered by the improved economic conditions. The baby boom may not have been a “wonder” in the end.