Living Alone in Latin America

People live in households with different configurations, with names like nuclear households, extended and nuclear-compound households, single-person households, and female-headed households, no-family households, grandmother-headed and single-sex households, and so on.  Household dynamics is an interesting subject for study, with many dimensions about the interrelationships among the household members, including optimal labor allocation, gender inequality, fertility and family planning, spatial territory, domestic violence, inheritance rights, etc.  In this article, we will deal with the subject of single person households, which means that we do not have to deal with any of the complexities that arise out of intra-household personal relationships.

Compared to the extended family, the single person household is sometimes considered disadvantageous.  For example, extended families are thought to provide post-retirement support to the elderly; they provide information and support for those who are in the labor market; and they provide a support network for raising children.  Nevertheless, single person households have grew across the world for a number of reasons --- better economic opportunities and resources, higher divorce/separation rates, lower marriage/union rates, lower mortality rates, greater mobility to leave one's home town for other cities or countries, etc.

We will now cite some survey data from the TGI Latina survey.  This is a survey of 48,885 households in eight Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Venezuela) conducted during 2001.  According to this survey, 5.1% of the households are constituted of single persons.  The chart shows the breakdown of the incidence of single person households by country and by socio-economic level.  

The next chart shows the breakdown by age/sex groups.

The next chart shows the breakdown by marital status and work.

The single person household phenomenon is due to some very different social forces.  

On one hand, there is the economic imperative.  The multi-person household is a social arrangement that permit the pooling of economic resources --- for two persons, there is no need to pay twice the rent, or buy two sets of appliances, and so on.  But the price of this economic sharing is an infringement on total personal freedom.  Consequently, if one has the economic means, one may prefer to pay one's own way and enjoy the freedom.  Under this scenario, the person would likely be more affluent, better educated and be in the class of professionals and managers.  

On the other hand, there is also the demographic imperative.  The breakdown of the institution of marriage means that more divorced and separated people are living on their own.  With better healthcare and nutrition, people live to longer ages, outliving their partners.  Under this scenario, the person would likely be a widow/widower living on fixed retirement income.

The data that we have shown support both scenarios: the higher incidences among the professional and managers, and also the much higher incidences among the separated/divorced/widowed and the elderly.

(posted by Roland Soong, 3/21/2002)

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