Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Prevalence and Patterns of Female Headed Households in Latin America: 1970-1990

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Prevalence and Patterns of Female Headed Households in Latin America: 1970-1990

Article excerpt

Prevalence and Patterns of Female Headed Households in Latin America: 1970-1990*


Recent research almost uniformly finds increasing trends in female headed households in the United States and other industrialized countries (Garfinkel and McLanahan, 1986; Wojtkiewicz et al., 1990; Bennett, Bloom and Craig, 1989; Bennett, Bloom and Miller, 1995). By some accounts, trends in most developing countries follow a very similar path although with time lags (Buvinic, Youssef and Von Elm,1978; Buvinic,1991; Pilon,1996). Levels and trends in female headed households are important indicators of changes in family organization and in the process of family formation. It is widely suspected that female headed households are more vulnerable to risk, economically less viable, socially less connected and poorly integrated and, finally, are enmeshed in a social and economic context that is less than optimum for the growth and development of mothers and children alike.

Our goal in this paper is to describe levels and trends of female headed households in Latin America during the past twenty years or so. The idea that developing societies will eventually experience social transformations similar to those in developed countries as either economic development or westernization occurs dies hard. Because of this we start off with a description of what is known about the US and other industrialized nations and then examine the characteristics of the Latin American experience. We will show that superficial similarities are overshadowed by strong contrasts.

The nature of the evidence in past research.

The prevalence of female headed households in the United States has been widely studied and discussed as the levels. have increased dramatically since the 1950s and since there is a strong consensus that the economic consequences for children who grow up in such households are negative. By the mid 1980s almost half of all female-headed families with children had incomes below the U.S. official poverty level (Garfinkel and McLanahan, 1986). Therefore, an increase in the percentage of families headed by single women from 7.4% in 1960 to 23.2% in 1985 has not gone unnoticed (Wojtkiewicz et al., 1990).

Analysis of this trend has highlighted the factors that have contributed to its rise in the United States during the past three decades. Overall, between 1950 and 1970 the major factor contributing to rising rates of female headship was the unprecedented increase in divorce rates, while the factors contributing to the more recent trend (1970s-1990s) have been identified as consisting of decreasing proportions of women marrying and an increase in non-marital childbearing (Bennett, Bloom and Miller, 1995; Wojtkiewicz et al., 1990; Bennett, Bloom and Craig,1989). Some have argued that the compositional changes behind this trend (increased divorce rates, decreased marriage rates, and increased non-marital fertility) are direct correlates of changes in nuptiality and fertility regimes inherent in the economic and social changes that have been taking place in Western countries for the past three decades. Foremost among these changes are the rising levels of female labor force participation and the demise of the traditional division of labor by sex (Schoen et al., 1985).

Our knowledge about the situation in developing countries is considerably more limited. In 1978 one study highlighted the apparent problem of increasing prevalence of female headship in developing countries. Its authors argued that there was a marked growing trend in the prevalence of female headedness throughout the developing world and most importantly that the households where the phenomenon was more commonly seen were predominantly concentrated in the lower socioeconomic strata (Buvinic, Youssef, and Von Elm, 1978).

By the late 1980s `female-headship' in the developing world had become a relatively well-known subject, notwithstanding the problematic issues it raised in terms of definitions of "headship" and of measurement of levels and time trends. …

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