Are Fertility Differentials Converging in Argentina and Brazil?

by Nicolás Sacco & Gabriel Borges

Using census data from Argentina and Brazil, in this post we summarize trends in fertility differentials by region, education and socio-occupational group in these countries, for the last decades, assessing the hypothesis of convergence. Results show no evidence that fertility consistently converges for all variables analyzed. There are important differences in the trends between the two countries and according to the variables for which the hypothesis is assessed.


The idea of ​​convergence in fertility in Latin American (LATAM) is widely accepted, both in academic studies and in the underlying assumptions of official population projections. Despite historical studies of the convergence/divergence tendencies that derive from the different times and duration of the stages of the demographic transition (DORIUS, 2008; WILSON, 2013; KOHLER; ANDERSON, 2016; BILLARI, 2018), little is known about these issues in LATAM, where a post-transitional context is expected to be widespread soon (UN, 2017). The journey towards a low fertility regime in LATAM continues to exhibit its characteristic social polarization (CABELLA, PARDO, 2014). The internal inequalities is one of the peculiarities of the fertility transition in the region, along with a very rapid decline and high levels of adolescent fertility.

In our paper, published by the Brazilian Journal of Population Studies, we look at the fertility differentials in period fertility by region, education and social stratification and how they have changed over time. To this end, we focus on two of the largest countries in the region, Argentina and Brazil, whose trajectories of fertility transition had a course, although comparable, at the same time very different and possible to consider as representative of other demographic conjectures.

Argentina represents the model of early fertility transition in the 20th century, which has followed a gradual course of falling fertility. This model includes periods of increase in fertility throughout the transition. Added to this is a pattern of late fertility, which places this model closer to the experience of Western European countries than to other LATAM countries. Brazil has had a much faster transition and a younger fertility, representing a classic model that is shared by different countries in the region, albeit in different periods.

Fertility trends by region, education and occupation

Fertility has declined much more rapidly in Brazil than in Argentina. There have been remarkably regional differentials in fertility in both countries, with almost no changes in the position of the regions by fertility levels. As expected, the less developed regions tend to show higher fertility levels.

In Argentina, the Northeast and Northwest regions have had the higher fertility, with almost 5 children per woman in 1980 and around 2.7 in 2010. The lowest Total Fertility Rate (TFR) was observed in the Greater Buenos Aires and the Pampean region, oscillating around 3 in 1980 and 2.1 in 2010. Although the regions that already had the lowest levels of TFR continue a downward trend, the decline is a little more pronounced in the regions that, by 1980, had the highest levels of fertility. Brazil had a higher TFR in 1980, but throughout the study period there was a much more pronounced decline than that of Argentina.

Fertility differentials are even more pronounced when we look at educational levels. TFR for woman at the low educational level (less than primary completed) in Argentina was roughly constant at 5 children per women until the 2001, when it started to decline moderately. TFR among women with medium level of education (primary completed) oscillates between 3.5 and 4.0 children per women. Unlike the two lower educational levels, women with high education (Secondary completed or higher) maintains a clear and sustained decline, going from a TFR of 2.2 in 1980 to 1.5 in 2010. In Brazil, unlike what was observed for Argentina, all educational levels reveal a downward trend until 2000, particularly at the low level, where the TFR went from 6.1 in 1970 to 3.1 in 2010. The medium level begins in 1970 with a rate of 2.6 children per woman and falls to 2.4 in 1991, remaining approximately constant until 2010. The high educational level, on the other hand, has the lowest levels of TFR, showing below replacement fertility throughout the entire period of study, tending towards a regime of very low fertility in 2010. The modest increase in fertility between 2000 and 2010 for groups of medium and high educational level is a clear compositional effect resulting from the significant increase of schooling in this decade.

There are important differences in fertility according to the socio-occupational condition in Argentina. The higher and intermediate occupations and the employers have had the lowest fertility, with a moderate and steady decline. The small group of farmers has the highest levels of fertility, stable between 1980 and 1991 (around 4.4) and descendants between 1991-2001. The category of workers shows a declining TFR in the period 1980-1991, although at lower levels than the farmers: their fertility vary from 3.9 children per woman in 1980 to 3.2 in 2001. The lower occupations, on the other hand, show a more rapid decline during the period of study, 5.0 in 1980 to 3.1 in 2001. In Brazil, all socio-occupations groups, from 1970 to 2010, show a rapid drop in fertility levels, although the differential are substantially lower than that of Argentina. By 2010, with the exception of the farmers all groups show fertility below the replacement level.

Fertility differentials and convergence

Figure 1 shows the coefficient of variation (CV) of the TFR by country, year and variable, one of our measures to calculate the differentials and assess the hypothesis of convergence in fertility.

Imagen 1

Inter-regional variability was higher in Brazil for all years, even with lower levels of fertility than in Argentina since 1991. The CV of the TFR by region remains nearly constant between 1980 and 2001 in Argentina, indicating almost no change in the regional differentials in fertility, although the most recent decade shows an important convergence in fertility levels. The TFR in Brazilian regions starts to converge only in the 1990s, when fertility decline of the pioneers of the demographic transition in the country slows down.

The fertility differentials by education increase in Argentina in the 1980s, but then remains almost constant for the next two decades. These differentials have declined substantially in Brazil during the entire period under analysis. The educational gradients in fertility used to be significant higher in Brazil than in Argentina, but they are currently lower.

The differentials in the TFR by occupation has remained roughly constant in both countries, although at much lower levels in Brazil.


The results of this study show two distinct patterns of fertility change. From these two cases, there is no evidence that fertility consistently converges for all variables analyzed: regional convergence in Brazil started later than in Argentina, but it occurred in a context of greater intensity of the fall in fertility; convergence in Argentina began earlier, but its intensity was reduced during the 1990s. Fertility by education shows different patterns in both countries: convergent in Brazil and divergent in Argentina (except in the last decade). Fertility differentials by occupation is a similarity of both countries, although differentials in Argentina are much higher.

It remains unclear what will happen to overall fertility and its differentials by social groups in these countries, but the results of this study show that changes in fertility differentials are complex and challenge simplistic assumptions that fertility will inevitably converge.

It is possible that the process of convergence observed in the last years will persist. Initially, as a consequence of a tempo effect, in which fertility in the most favored regions and social groups will stop falling, or even present slight increases, while fertility in the regions and groups more vulnerable continue to fall. This trend can even lead to a new stage of divergence, with the weakening of the historical association between socioeconomic characteristics and fertility rates. On the other hand, inequalities such as the persistent differences regarding the unmet needs of contraception, especially among young women, can lead to maintenance of certain fertility differentials between social groups.


BILLARI, F. C. A “great divergence” in fertility? In: POSTON, J. D. (Ed.). Low fertility regimes and demographic and societal change. Cham: Springer, 2018.

CABELLA, W.; PARDO, I. Hacia un régimen de baja fecundidad en América Latina y el Caribe, 1990-2015. In: CAVENAGHI, S.; CABELLA, W. (Ed.). Comportamiento reproductivo y fecundidad en América Latina: una agenda inconclusa. Rio de Janeiro: Alap, 2014.

DORIUS, S. F. Global demographic convergence? A reconsideration of changing intercountry inequality in fertility. Population and Development Review, v. 34, n. 3, p. 519-37, 2008.

KOHLER, H.-P.; ANDERSON, T. Divergent demographic destinies. In: POPULATION ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA ANNUAL MEETING. Anais… Washington, D.C.: PAA, 2016.

WILSON, C. On the scale of global demographic convergence 1950–2000. Population and Development Review, v. 27, n. 1, p. 155-71, 2001.

_________. Thinking about post-transitional demographic regimes: A reflection. Demographic Research, v. 28, p. 1373-88, 2013.


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