Mapping honesty and migration: Lessons from Italy

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Levels of dishonesty vary by region in Italy. This column measures how behaviours and attitudes relating to rule-breaking differ from place to place using childbirth registration data. By tracking where more people are falsifying birth records, it is possible to make accurate inferences about honesty in a given area. Importantly, the column also shows that migration movements can generate honesty drains or honesty gains in different areas. These changes correlate with regional economic outcomes, from human capital to productivity, to earnings growth, to the quality of local government.


The falsification of children’s birth certificates is widespread in Italy, despite having been a criminal offence for more than a century. New research shows that this seemingly odd phenomenon reveals novel explanations for the uneven distribution of social capital and economic performance across Italy’s regions. Migrants differ in their honesty, as measured by their propensity to falsify their birthdate. This means that migration movements cause honesty drains and honesty gains in different areas, with potential long-term effects on economic outcomes. Hidden within the data are lessons about regional differences in human capital, productivity, earnings growth, and the quality of local politicians and government.


Census surprises

In theory, births should be distributed almost uniformly across the year. But according to Italian census data, in early December of each year, the frequency of registered births per day declines substantially, particularly in the Southern region of the country. The concentration of registered births is then abnormally high in the first five days of January. According to the authors, this anomaly is due to widespread rule-breaking by parents attempting, illegally, to gain advantages or avoid costs for their children or themselves. 

Demographers have known about this phenomenon for a long time. This is attested by detailed discussions in Italy’s statistical yearbooks for 1929 and 1954. The most important parental motive is likely to be the customary demarcation of cohorts by the calendar year of birth. So, a child born in December is always among the youngest in the groups of classmates with whom she competes, physically or intellectually. If the same child is instead registered as being born in early January, she will be the oldest in her cohort. This is particularly relevant for school activities, sports competitions, and military enrollment, which was compulsory in Italy for cohorts born up until 1985. 

Another relevant motive may be to allow the child to remain in the parents’ household for longer. Traditionally, if the child is male, military service will start one year later, while in the case of a female, there will be more time to find a husband. This phenomenon is observed for children who attain high levels of education as well as for those who do not go beyond compulsory education or are dropouts. Therefore, ‘birthday cheating’ does not seem to be specifically related to family affluence.

Incidentally, other forms of birthday cheating have emerged in the data. Italians are also abnormally less likely to be born on the 17th of each month – something clearly driven by superstition. The number 17 is associated with La Disgrazia (Misfortune) in the traditional Neapolitan game of Tombola (a variant of bingo). Again, children should be born uniformly across the days of a given month. The notable dip in frequency on the 17th day can only be due to widespread falsification.


Locating cheaters 

The frequency of this type of rule-breaking is a very convenient proxy for the local diffusion of honesty. This is because it can be estimated, using census information, for small population groups within small localities and at different points in time during the 20th century. It is possible to compare groups of subjects facing the same degree of local deterrence (law enforcement, for example) and deriving similar benefits from breaking a rule. Differences in birthday cheating between these groups within small towns can therefore capture the different inclinations of group members towards honest behaviour. If the births bunch up in January and are low in December for a given group within the same locality, it is likely that this group includes a higher number of less honest citizens. 


Where internal migration fits in

The two groups in Italy compared in this recent study are ‘migrants’ (that is, subjects who were born in a southern city and live in the north, or vice versa) and ‘remainers’ (subjects who were born and have remained in the same city). One of the authors of the research paper, Andrea Ichino, was motivated to investigate the birthday cheating puzzle in relation to migration within Italy after speaking with a PhD student who had moved away from Calabria because if she had stayed ‘she would have had to accept behaviors concerning rules and civicness that were ethically unacceptable’. The idea was then to check if this was just an exception or a more general issue.

The theoretical basis for this curiosity is discussed in a companion paper by Ichino and another team of co-authors. Their theoretical model shows that members of a community who, all else being equal, dislike breaking rules may prefer to move elsewhere if they resent supporting ‘free-riders’ in the community who do not care about rules. At the same time, subjects who are dishonest may prefer to leave a community if it becomes poor due to excessive free-riding. In this model, the prevailing outcome depends on the risk attitudes and on the beliefs about deterrence in the place of origin versus the place of destination which characterise subjects with high or low honesty.

There is a clear tendency among Italians to sort themselves geographically according to their honesty. Over time, this tendency has modified the average honesty in each locality, with relevant consequences for the distribution across geographic areas of outcomes such as social capital, human capital, productivity, earnings growth, and the quality of local politicians and government. Areas experiencing a more intensive ‘honesty drain’ may have become locked in a vicious cycle of proliferating cheating and a growing propensity to emigrate among the most civic-minded citizens.

While birthday cheating itself may seem fairly harmless, the wider implications for honesty and social cohesion are critical. In a country with strong regional inequality, like Italy, differing honesty levels by region are yet another example of how certain areas can get left behind. Identifying these discrepancies is the first step to addressing why economic and social outcomes can vary. As is often the case, what first appears to be an innocent anomaly in the census data could end up being of critical importance to policy-makers in Italy and further afield.


Author: Andrea Ichino