Demographic Responses to Economic Hardship
in Argentina 

In 2002, Argentina has gone into the fifth year of an economic recession, with the conditions deteriorating much worse than ever.  The economic hardships included sharp increases in unemployment and underemployment; even for those who were fortunate to have jobs, their incomes have fallen.  The termination of the 1-for-1 linkage between the Argentine peso and the US dollar also meant that many people have seen their savings lose most of their value.

Such economic hardships lead to demographic response.  From the book DEMOGRAPHIC RESPONSES TO ECONOMIC ADJUSTMENT IN LATIN AMERICA:

Mortality and, more probably, morbidity, might increase as a consequence of the worsening of living conditions.  The decrease in income for the lower strata of the population might imply less, or less rich, food intake, thought this type of expenditure should show little downward elasticity.  The drop in public investment might affect sanitation infrastructure, but this might not have immediately visible effects.  More important, hygienic habits and preventive attitudes towards diseases need not change abruptly.  But public expenditure, as well as private expenditure, on health care might decrease, and this could have a noticeable effect on morbidity and, ultimately, on mortality.

Fertility could be affected, in principle, in either of two differing ways.  If the traditional relationship between poverty and high fertility holds, then an increase in fertility could be expected.  On the other hand, it is most probable that cultural changes which, together with economic growth in the 1970s, led to decreases in fertility will not be easily or rapidly reversible.  Rather, if people plan their families so as to offer their children higher standards of care, nutrition, education, etc., then it is possible that in the face of economic adversity, decisions to have children may be postponed (or, more plausibly, decisions to marry may be postponed, with the attendant postponement of planned pregnancies).  Which of these possibilities prevail is therefore an open empirical question.

Migration could also be affected, in cases where the preferred locations for economic activities geared to the export market differ from those oriented to the domestic market: one should expect migrants to be attracted to the former, because their relative weight increases with structural adjustment.  If the exports which are increased are mainly of agricultural origin, as is the case in many Latin American countries, then urbanization might be slowed down, which in turn may affect the average evolution of fertility and mortality-morbidity.  This hypothetical effect is in contrast to those resulting from agricultural crises originating in climatic changes that lead to bad harvests.

For this article, we will address the issue of fertility using some data from the TGI Argentina study.  This is a consumer survey of 11,009 households in Argentina conducted during the second half of 2001 and the first half of 2002.  During the survey, the households were asked if any household member was pregnant.  Overall, 1.79% of the households reported that some household member was pregnant.  Our purpose here is not to look at historical trends, for which we would have to have comparable historical data, preferably over long periods of time.  Rather, our purpose is to look at the pregnancy rates across different groups.

In the next chart, we show the incidence of pregnancy by socio-economic level and the highest achieved level of education by the head of household.  These data are consistent with the traditional relationship of higher fertility rates among the poor.  But here, we will note that the extreme poor (i.e. socio-economic level D2)  is not the ones with the highest incidence.  

(Source: TGI Argentina)

The existence of higher fertility rates among the poor should not be taken as an indication of ignorance.  One rational way of approaching the decision as to the number of children that one should raise is based upon the calculus of the amount of resources that one's children should have in order to maximize their potential success.  Under this rationale, it would be unwise to have too many children since the resources (especially if they are known to be limited) would be spread thinly, as that would be a formula to perpetuate poverty.  But this is not the only possible line of reasoning.  When infant mortality rate is high (especially for the poor who live without water, sanitation or healthcare services), it may be unwise to have only a single child.  Furthermore, a large family may be better able to pool their labor and resources together when individual members encounter problems.

In the next chart, we first show the fertility incidences by household size. In times of economic hardship, there is a tendency for smaller households to group together in order for savings and pooling.  We see that larger households are much more likely to have household members being pregnant.  At the other extreme, the single pregnant woman living by herself is least unlikely to be pregnant.  

In the same chart, we also show the fertility incidences by employment conditions.  One of the reasons why child-bearing/child-raising is subject to rational calculations instead of a purely emotional act is that the prospective parents have a responsibility to provide for the children.  When the parents are unemployed, they must be concerned about how they can provide for another child.  In this chart, we see that the fertility incidence decreases significantly when the head of household is employed or when no one in the household is working.

(Source: TGI Argentina)

But the family planning choices are surely less dictated by demographic variables such as socio-economic level, education or household composition than by the immediate economic situation.  The TGI Argentina survey includes the standard confidence questions: the retrospective one against one year ago, and the prospective one against one year from now.  The results are shown in the following chart.  As we expected, fertility rates are higher among those who either experienced or expected good economic prospects, and vice versa.  But unfortunately, as we reported in Consumer Confidence in Argentina: 2000-2002, fewer and fewer people are seeing better economic conditions in Argentina.

(Source: TGI Argentina)

The choice of raising children should be a fundamental human right.  Unfortunately, responsible people sometimes have to defer their hopes and dreams in the face of macro-economic hardships that occur through no fault of their own.

In this article, we saw some evidence for a reduced fertility rate in Argentina.  We can presume that there is an increase in mortality rate due to widespread malnutrition as well as reduced public services in healthcare and sanitation.  Meanwhile, the long lines at the foreign embassies suggest that there will also be a net emigration to countries such as Spain and Italy.  If true, these factors will lead to a net decrease in the Argentine population in the near future.


(posted by Roland Soong, 9/04/2002)

(Return to Zona Latina's Home Page)