While reading an article by the Observatorio de la Maternidad, an Argentine think tank devoted to issues related to motherhood, I was surprised at the gaps in several indicators between mothers from the City of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, and the mothers from the surrounding districts of Greater Buenos Aires.
The region of Greater Buenos Aires is an urban agglomeration consisting of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires and a group of 24 municipalities that forms the metropolitan area of Greater Buenos Aires. This region is home to one third of Argentina’s population and produces 40% of the national GDP. Of the total population of the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires, only 23% live within the city’s limits, while 77% live in surrounding districts in the province. Though the number of inhabitants in the City has remained steady over the past 40 years as fertility rates have fallen, the population of Greater Buenos Aires has increased by 84.3%.
Reproductive behaviors are also quite disparate. Mothers in the city bear an average of 1.8 children, while those in the surrounding area have an average of 2.3. In addition, recent mothers (women who gave birth in 2012) in Greater Buenos Aires had their first child at 28.8 years old, but this age climbs to 31.4 years old in the City of Buenos Aires. Besides having their children at a younger age, mothers in Greater Buenos Aires also tend to be more often single or separated.
Other differences are that mothers from the city attain higher educational levels and have a lower probability of dropping out of school than those in Greater Buenos Aires, where more than half of mothers did not finish high school. Given that educational level is an extremely important variable strongly associated with indicators of child development, this gap has major implications for child development policies.
Additionally, the percentage of unemployed mothers is dramatically higher in the surrounding area (44.3%) as compared to the city (32%). Clearly, mothers in the province, who are most often single, have no choice but to stay home and care for their children, which is why they neither work nor go to college. It seems to me that the surrounding districts have a greater need for daycare centers to assist working mothers than the City of Buenos Aires (where it’s already hard to get a slot at the government-funded daycare centers!).
These figures make me wonder what interventions would be appropriate in this context. Why do children from the province start off life at a disadvantage? It seems that while we can consider a geographical unit such as the province of Buenos Aires as a targeting unit for child development programs, different interventions must be implemented within the area in order to have the greatest impact. There is obviously a need to focus and/or adapt existing policies to the mothers who most need them, but how?
In the IDB publication Early Childhood Stimulation Interventions in Developing Countries: A Comprehensive Literature Review, Helen Henningham and I found that child development programs for mothers of different backgrounds have differential effects. For example, in Bangladesh, mothers with greater resources and higher levels of education benefited more from group workshops where stimulation was provided in the home. The intervention was based around discussion and did not include too much in the way of role playing or practical activities, so perhaps it’s not that surprising that the most educated mothers were better able to understand and apply the strategies than the most disadvantaged mothers.
The same result was found in a study with children with disabilities in Vietnam and another study in Peru. Educated mothers have always displayed a better ability to internalize intervention messages, and they’re also more compliant when it comes to following the instructions they’re given. In Bogota, Colombia, reading disposition assessments given to 3.5-year-olds at the end of a stimulation program showed that the children of mothers with greater educational and psychological resources benefited the most.
So, perhaps the interventions that seek to improve parenting skills of mothers in the province of Buenos Aires need to be better designed, with more activity demonstrations and increased intensity and frequency of the meetings and have staff who are specifically trained for that. What do you think?
What is certain is that if these gaps are not closed soon, they will only widen with the passage of time. Clearly, the polarization of even a single metropolitan area is undesirable no matter how you look at it.