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By Suzanne Duryea.

In recent weeks, the topic of redefining families has been at the forefront of political controversies and demonstrations in more than one country in the region. The debate has been framed as one of expanding rights versus defending traditional family values. What has been missing from this debate, however, is the larger context of how families in the region have been slowly but dramatically transformed over the past two decades.

In our newly released report, Social Pulse 2016, Realities and Perspectives, we show that indeed, the family in Latin America and the Caribbean is strikingly different today than it was twenty years ago. For the elderly, living in an extended family has become increasingly less common, while living alone – by oneself or with one’s spouse – has become increasingly common. For example, Colombia exhibits a sharp rise in elderly persons living alone: an increase from 22% in 2002 to 31% in 2014. The average for 21 countries in the region has increased from 30% to 37%. These changes have potentially significant implications for the welfare of the elderly. While some may enjoy increased independence, that may be offset by challenges to secure caregiving arrangements and the costs associated with them.

The changes for children have been similarly significant, with children more likely to live with one parent rather than two parents circa 2014 compared to 1995. For example, the percentage of children in Brazil who lived with two parents fell from 76% to 69%. In Ecuador, the percentage of children living with two parents dropped from 80% in 1995 to 73% in 2014. Such changes in family structure are remarkably consistent with those observed outside of the region as well. In fact, trends in children living with single parents since the mid-1990s in the United States and Canada are similar to those in Brazil and Ecuador.

Family formation in Latin America and the Caribbean does appear to be rather distinct in at least one important way. While in the United States mothers with more education are more likely to be married or live with a partner, this is not the case in in the region. In fact, increased education in Latin America does not reduce the likelihood of women also being single parents. Our report does not explain what determines this phenomenon, but it does raise the question of the dynamics behind this pattern. If the differences are primarily explained by couple dissolution rather than formation, how does education relate to this dissolution?

One perspective (certainly not shared unanimously) is that the previous era – in which two parents’ extended families were at the core –  was far superior. This could be partially explained by the assumption that the logistics and costs of providing care for grandparents may seem easier when the family caregiver lives in the same household. Moreover, the report documents small disadvantages in terms of human capital development for children growing up in homes with one parent.

However, there is far more evidence to support policies that align with the modern family structure by enabling an environment for participating in the labor market and fulfilling caregiving responsibilities, than for policies that attempt to retrofit family composition. The report documents the increasing prevalence of single mothers in the region who are responsible for raising children and generating income. While much analysis focuses on individuals in the same dwelling, family ties clearly do not end at the front door.

Engaged, non-residential parents play a critical role in child development, and intergenerational caregiving arrangements occur across households. Reducing barriers to economic participation and engaged parenting are key policy levers. We can also build upon the strong body of evidence that finds that social programs targeting children who have additional vulnerabilities are effective in improving human capital development.

As witnessed by recent headlines and protests in the region, the definition of the family is likely to continue to be hotly debated. The transformation of the family over the last twenty years suggests that policies to improve social conditions in the region must take into account the living arrangements of the modern Latin American family.

How has your community reacted to the debate on new family structures? What’s your stand regarding this? Let us know in the comments section below or mentioning @BIDgente in Twitter.

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Suzanne Duryea is a Principal Research Economist in the Social Sector of the Inter-American Development Bank where her work focuses on youth development in Latin America and the Caribbean.

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