Inheritance and education as substitutes

The effect of inheritance laws on gender equity is a subject that remains largely understudied; most of the information we have is anecdotal or follows from intuitive reasoning. It makes sense that in places where land ownership is a significant predictor of future outcomes and job opportunities are limited, not owning land (or not inheriting it) would likely lead to worse outcomes. Given that inheritance laws tend to favor male children (and in some cases first-born male children), it stands to reason that women and girls would have the most to lose from disinheritance.

In a twist, a working paper by two Italian economists shows that inheritance actually leads to less investment in schooling, and more investment in health for male children, but not for female children. The paper relies on a policy change in Ghana which changed inheritance from a primarily matrilineal system to a more patrilineal system, leading to more male sons inheriting land from their fathers. The authors show, using a difference-in-difference strategy, that males who were subject to the new laws, and thus more likely to inherit land, eventually obtained one less year of education than boys who weren’t subject to the law. They were also healthier using a height-for-weight z scores, indicating higher investments in nutrition and health, which would be necessary for more efficient working of land.

The argument is that inheriting land/investments in health and education were close substitutes due to the social norm that fathers provided for their sons’ livelihoods. If a father could not provide for his child by giving him land, he could send him to school or set him up with an apprenticeship. Given limited resources, the parents might choose education over investments in health. With inheritance laws favoring sons of fathers, that “over-investment” in education ceases and higher investment in health follows. This is likely only an issue for parents for whom the constraints are binding–i.e., they have a limited amount of resources to spread around. The poorer a family is, the more likely they are to run up against this constraint, and thus the effect of the patrilineal inheritance laws is likely greater for the landowning poor than wealthier landowners.

For girls, the results are somewhat ambiguous, and theoretically, the outcome is difficult to predict. Whether girls are affected by disinheritance of land as a result of the changed law (through lower nutrition and higher education?), is likely closely tied to the social norms regarding providing for girl children. If the social norm is “people in this community (should or do) set up girls to provide for themselves,” as it appears to be for boys, we would likely see such changes in investments. If the social norm doesn’t reflect an obligation to girl children, then the change in inheritance laws shouldn’t have a great effect.

Source: La Ferrara, E. and A. Milazzo (2011) ‘Social Norms, Inheritance and Human Capital. Evidence from a Reform in the Matrilineal System in Ghana’. A preliminary draft.


Author: ekfletch

I am an independent researcher on issues of gender, labor, violence, education, and children.

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