“The situation today is different, and raising a child is difficult,” said Silva, slicing tomatoes at a restaurant that she founded with four other women, only one of whom has planned a family of any size. “This is another time, and it’s not the same.”
Fertility rates have dropped in many parts of the world in recent decades, but something particularly remarkable happened to the once-prolific family across Latin America. From sprawling Mexico to tiny Ecuador to economically buoyant Chile, fertility rates plummeted, even though abortion is illegal, the Catholic Church opposes birth control and government-run family planning is rare.
A frenzied migration to the cities, the expansion of the female workforce, better health care and the example of the small, affluent families portrayed on the region’s wildly popular soap operas have contributed to a demographic shift that happened so fast it caught social scientists by surprise.
In 1960, women in Latin America had almost six children on average. By 2010, the rate had fallen to 2.3 children.
“When I started out, the cutting-edge thing to do was to explain why people had lots of children,” said Joseph Potter, a demographer at the Population Research Center at the University of Texas, who began working in Latin America in the 1970s. “In fact, people were more disposed toward low fertility than we oh-so-sophisticated social scientists thought. . . . The idea that lots of children was the way to go went down the drain a lot earlier than we were prepared to realize.”
Brazil’s declining fertility rate has been particularly fascinating for demographers. This is a country of continental proportions whose population is an ethnic stew of almost 200 million. There is also a great gap between rich and poor, although millions have joined the middle class during Brazil’s recent economic expansion.
The country’s fertility rate has fallen from 6.15 children per woman in 1960 to less than 1.9 today. That is a lower rate than in any other Latin American country except Cuba, which has state-sponsored family planning and legalized abortion. It is also lower than the rate for the United States, which at 2 per woman is just enough for the population to replace itself.
Demographers were astonished that Brazil’s fertility rate fell almost uniformly from cosmopolitan Sao Paulo, with its tiny apartments and go-go economy, to Amazonian villages and the vast central farming belt.
“Brazil started coming down and had this big drop that amazed everybody, everywhere,” said Suzana Cavenaghi, a Brazilian census bureau demographer. “We wouldn’t expect that in a country that’s so diverse, with a lot of poverty in so many places and so unequal, economically speaking.”
Cavenaghi said a confluence of factors accelerated the trend.