Two stories, one fate: Age-heaping and literacy in Spain, 1877-1930

New EHES Working Paper by  Francisco J. Beltrán Tapia (NTNU), Alfonso Díez-Minguela, Julio Martinez-Galarraga and Daniel A. Tirado (Universitat de València) is available here.

Francisco J. Beltrán Tapia is an assoociate professor at the
Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Economic and social progress has been closely related to advances in human capital. Numerous studies have stressed its relevance for economic growth (Romer, 1986; Lucas, 1988; Gennaioli et al., 2013). In economic history, however, there are mixed views on the role played by human capital in economic development. While some studies claim it was fundamental, other studies cast doubt on this assertion. In recent years, however, there have been further attempts to stress the importance of human capital. For example, it has been argued that rather than the average level of human capital of a society what mattered was the “elite” or upper-tail of the knowledge distribution (Mokyr, 2009). 

Having said that, it appears that one of the challenges, if not the main challenge, in this literature is identification, and hence measurement. Human capital is a broad concept (Goldin, 2015). In this study we look at human capital, captured with age-heaping and literacy, in a historical setting: Spain 1877-1930. For this, we use administrative data from Spanish population censuses between 1877 and 1930 (T=6) and calculate the level of age-heaping (Whipple’s index) by province (N=49) and gender. The Whipple index is then converted into an ABCC index for practical matters. Interestingly, the Spanish population censuses also offer information on the self-reported ability to read and write, which permit the comparison of both measures.

The main finding of this study is that age-heaping was relatively stable in the early population counts, both at the national and provincial level. In fact, it did only start to decrease in the early 20th century. This result goes in line with other works that claim that living standards in Spain only began to significantly improve in the early 20th century (Pérez Moreda et al., 2015; Martínez Carrión, 2016). Yet, this story is more difficult to reconcile with the existing evidence as regards to literacy. Literacy rates, as the figure below shows, experienced a gradual improvement since 1860 (Núñez, 1992). Besides, we also find that age-heaping was surprisingly low in certain areas. For instance, in the capital-city of Madrid and in the north-centre provinces age-heaping was trivial but literacy was still rather low (although this area exhibited the highest literacy rates within Spain). Likewise, gender gaps in age-heaping were negligible, even in provinces with striking differences between male and female literacy rates.

Figure. ABCC index (%) and literacy in Spain by province, 1877-1930.
 Notes: Data for the following population censuses: 1877, 1887, 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930. The solid line represents the regression line, while the black-squares are the national average.
Source: INE and authors’ calculations

In sum, using administrative data from the Spanish population censuses this study shows that age-heaping remained unchanged in the second half of the 19th century while literacy, on the other hand, improved substantially. This, in turn, raises further questions. Age-heaping might result from poor numeracy skills, ignorance, or deliberate misreporting. However, the capacity of the public administration could somehow affect the effectiveness of the data collection process. Moreover, although these measures capture distinct skills one would expect certain complementarity. Theoretically, these two stories are expected to converge but our study shows that literacy and age-heaping did not go hand-in-hand until the early 20th century. 


Gennaioli, N., La Porta, R., Lopez-de-Silanes, F. and Shleifer, A. 2013. “Human capital and regional development”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 128 (1), 105-164.
Goldin, C. 2015. “Human capital”. In C. Diebolt and M. Haupert (eds.), Handbook of Cliometrics, ch. 3, Berlin and Heidelberg: Springer, 55-86.
Lucas, R. 1988. “On the mechanics of economic development”, Journal of Monetary Economics, 22 (1), 3-42.
Martínez Carrión, J.M. 2016. “Living standards, nutrition and inequality in the Spanish industrialisation. An anthropometric view”, Revista de Historia Industrial, 64, 11-50.
Mokyr, J. 2009. The Enlightened economy: an economic history of Britain 1700-1850, New Haven: Yale University Press.
Núñez, C.E. 1992. La fuente de la riqueza: educación y desarrollo económico en la España contemporánea, Madrid: Alianza.
Pérez Moreda, V. Reher, D.S. and Sanz Gimeno, D. 2015. La conquista de la salud: mortalidad y modernización en la España contemporánea, Madrid: Marcial Pons.
Romer, P.M. 1986. “Increasing returns and long-run growth”, Journal of Political Economy, 94 (5), 1002-1037.