Penn demographers embark on quest to learn more about families in low- and middle-income countries

“We know a lot about families in the United States, Sweden, a lot of high-income countries,” said University of Pennsylvania demographer Hans-Peter Kohler. “But there is a huge gap in what we know about the family in middle- and low-income countries.”

A new project, spearheaded by members of Penn’s Population Studies Center and funded by a three-year, $460,000 National Science Foundation grant, aims to fill that hole.

Embarking on a quest for more information, Kohler, along with demographers Frank Furstenberg and Pilar Gonalons-Pons, and fourth-year doctoral candidates Luca Maria Pesando and Andrés Castro, created a study that repurposes large-scale existing data to paint a more complete picture of family systems in 80-plus countries worldwide, from Colombia to Ghana.

“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 said. “This is the overall idea. It’s global and comparative in nature.”

For nearly a hundred countries and spanning decades, USAID and the United Nations have amassed data on global health and population trends, as well as on the well-being of women and children. The Penn researchers surmised that buried within that collection was a treasure trove of untapped information about family change. But first, they had to figure out how to compare apples to apples with these disparate datasets. 

“The information about families is more hidden,” Kohler said. “We plan to use innovative indicators to extrapolate how individuals organize their family lives.”

Demographers studying family change often focus on a small set of such indicators like 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 Penn 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 and whether marriage occurs, whether marriage is preceded by childbearing or childbearing follows marriage,” Furstenberg said. “Demographers have [already] noted that marriage age is rising virtually everywhere in the world. That’s an indication that something is going on.”

The project, a collaboration with Oxford University, Bocconi University and the Autonomous University of Barcelona, is still in its infancy; it began in earnest in the fall of 2017. Even so, it has already lead to new discoveries.

One common hypothesis in the field states that as countries develop, families get weaker — divorce rates increase, fertility drops, childbearing happens later. But Kohler and colleagues have disproven this. Individuals in low- and middle-income countries may start these adult processes later in life, but they are also living longer and as such, spend more total “person years” married.

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

They’ve also determined that in these places, decision-making responsibilities around reproductive health are shifting. Historically, men made the majority of decisions about this family facet. Now, however, partners are starting to have a more equal say. “This is a simple example,” Pesando said. “And it’s moving in a similar direction of what we observe in high-income societies.”

The work has great potential to have a large impact on 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 said. “We’re studying the family system not just because it’s interesting but because it affects the health and well-being of everyone.”

Funding for the Penn team came from National Science Foundation grant number 1729185, part of the NSF’s division of Social and Economic Sciences.