How are families in low- and middle-income countries changing?

Much is known about family systems in high-income countries like Sweden and the United States, such as how decades of sweeping demographic, economic, and social change have radically transformed family structures, gender roles, and intergenerational bonds. But Hans-Peter Kohler, the Frederick J. Warren Professor of Demography in the Department of Sociology in the School of Arts & Sciences, says there is “a huge gap in what we know about the family in middle- and low-income countries.”

Embarking on a quest for more information, Penn demographers Kohler, Frank Furstenberg, and fourth-year doctoral candidates Luca Maria Pesando and Andrés Castro created a project that repurposes large-scale existing data to better understand family systems in more than 80 such countries, including Colombia, Bangladesh, Morocco, Malawi, and Ghana. The team, all part of Penn’s Population Studies Center, earned a three-year, $460,000 National Science Foundation grant to conduct the research.

“We hope to get a better understanding of which dimensions of family have been changing the most, and whether socioeconomic factors have been driving some of these changes,” Pesando says. “This is the overall idea. It’s global and comparative in nature.”

To start, the researchers had to figure out how to harmonize disparate data originally collected for different purposes. They turned to 450 surveys from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Demographers studying family change often focus on a small set of indicators, such as fertility, reproductive health, and longevity, to determine how families typically form and act. But in an effort to extrapolate how individuals in low- and middle-income countries organize their families, the researchers plan to apply new methodology to areas such as marriage and childbearing.

“There are a series of demographic transitions that in wealthy countries have shifted enormously over the past half century: when marriage occurs, whether marriage occurs, whether marriage is preceded by childbearing, or childbearing follows marriage,” Furstenberg says. “But demographers have noted that marriage age is rising virtually everywhere in the world. That’s an indication that something is going on.”

Though the project is still in its beginning stages, the researchers have already drawn some conclusions. One common hypothesis states that as countries develop, families get weaker—divorce rates increase, fertility drops, and childbearing happens later.

Kohler and colleagues disproved this theory. While it is true that individuals in low- and middle-income countries may be starting these adult processes at a later age, they’re also living longer, so they’re spending more “person years” married.

“That is an important and neat finding,” Kohler says. “While the family is transforming by at least some measures, the family isn’t getting weaker.” 

Pesando says he hopes to learn more about the role education plays in individuals coupling up.

“People tend to mate with someone of their same education level,” he says. “But we know very little about whether this happens in low-income societies.”

The project, a collaboration with Oxford University, Bocconi University, and the Autonomous University of Barcelona, has the potential to have a large impact for places where this kind of information isn’t yet well-understood.

“Family is the central institution for reproduction, care of children, support of elders,” Furstenberg says. “We’re studying the family system not just because it’s interesting, but because it affects the health and well-being of everyone.”