1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Project: Ageing, Development and Social Protection

Case Study by Ana Amélia Camarano

  • Project from: 2001 to 2003



1. Context

At the beginning of the 21st Century, a common feature of the developed and the developing worlds is their ageing population. In Brazil, this can be perceived by an increase in the population aged 60 and over that grew from 4% in 1940 to 9% in 2000. This figure represents approximately 14 million people in the latter year. It is expected that this age group will reach 25.5 million people in 2020. More importantly is the fact that in 1999, at least one elderly could be found in 26% of Brazilian families.

The process of Brazilian ageing is quite heterogeneous and complex. One of the important differences occurs in rural and urban areas. Although fertility and mortality are much higher in rural areas compared to urban ones, the proportion of elderly population in the total population is about the same in rural and urban areas. This means that population ageing does not result only from fertility and mortality declines. Rural urban migration at prime age contributes to faster ageing in Brazilian rural areas and slower ageing in urban areas. Migrants from rural areas are mostly young women. So, gender composition is different by residence. Sex ratio among rural elderly is high (1.12 in 2000). On the other hand, sex ratios are very low in urban areas (0.76). This poses different needs in caring for the elderly.

2. Question/ Methods

The main purpose of this paper is to discuss the relationship between ageing and dependence and the role of social policies in Brazil according to rural and urban areas. In other words, is being elderly in rural areas different from being elderly in urban areas? And if it is found to be so, which dimension of life is affected? How is the Social Security policy affecting these conditions? As Brazilian national data mask regional differences, the paper also places attention on certain differences between the Northeast (the Brazilian poorest region) and the Southeast (the richest region in this process.

In this paper, old age is considered to start at the age of 60. This has been based on the definition used by the Brazilian National Policy for the Elderly. Nevertheless, this does not mean that all these people have high levels of vulnerability and dependence. Actually, a great proportion of the Brazilian elderly are still playing social roles, such as continuing on with their economic activities, caring for grandchildren and are better off on the whole while some even share their income. In sum, this is not a homogeneous group.

Four dimensions of elderly life are considered, to note: familial arrangements, health conditions, economic activities and income. This is considered taking into account the composition of this group by age and gender according to rural and urban areas. The relationship between ageing and dependence is stronger in rural areas than in urban ones as well as in the Northeast as compared to the Southeast. Nevertheless, gains in well being observed throughout 1981 to 1999 have benefited more elderly females living in rural areas and in the Northeast. These gains have been mainly due to Social Security and health policies.

The main data analysed are those from the General Household Surveys (PNAD) of 1981 and 1999. They allow for the study of changes that took place through a time period of 18 years. Other sources such as Demographic Censuses and the PNAD de 1998 are also used.

3. Some Results

Empirical evidence has shown that in Brazil the relationship between ageing and dependence is not so straightforward. The urban elderly are younger than their rural counterparts. There is some empirical evidence that the elderly living in urban areas enjoy better living conditions. For instance, in 1998, about 84% of the Brazilian elderly population living in urban areas reported being in good health. The comparable proportion for rural areas is 81%. The proportion of rural handicapped elderly was higher in 1981 than the urban ones. This difference was reverted throughout the 80s.

There is less poverty among families living with elderly member(s) in urban areas. Actually, there is less poverty in general among urban families. In 1981, the proportion of poor families was not very much affected by whether the families did or did not have elderly members, especially in rural areas. In 1999 the situation became quite different, though. For instance, the proportion of poor rural families was 29.7%. If elderly people had not been present, the comparable proportion would have increased to 48.9%. Among urban families, the comparable proportions are 18.8% and 33.8%. Another point is the matter of gender. Among the non-elderly population, poverty is higher among women than men. The situation is reverted where the elderly population is concerned. Brazilian legislation allows women to accumulate retirement benefits, widowhood benefits and earnings from labour.

Relative better life conditions experienced by the elderly population are contrasted with the effects of the continuous economic crisis experienced by the Brazilian economy. This has affected the young population more through unemployment, violence, drugs, teen-age pregnancy, marital disruption, etc. Poverty increased among the non-elderly urban population aged 25 to 59. As a result, there has been an increase in the time adult children spend as dependents of their parents. Two forms of support from the elderly to their families can be measured: the contribution of elderly income on familial budget and the presence of adult children and grandchildren living in families with elderly members.

In 1999, the rural elderly contributed with 58.0% to the familial budget and the urban ones with 51.3%. The impact of elderly contribution is more important in the Northeast as compared to the Southeast. The composition of the families with elderly living in has changed to become more complex than the expected "empty nest". Another form of elderly support to families is suggested by an increase in the proportion of adult offspring, 21 years and older, living in families headed by the elderly. Also, the proportion of "other relatives " (probably, grandchildren) aged less than 14 years living in families headed by the elderly has dramatically increased. The largest such increase took place in rural families, especially among those families headed by elderly males, in the Northeast region.

Summarizing, one can say that there has been a change of status for the elderly within their own families, modifying their traditional role of dependent to that of provider. This has been made possible because a large proportion of elderly earnings comes from Social Security. In rural areas, the proportion of elderly who receive some kind of social benefit increased from 53% to 82% from 1981 on through to 1999. This benefits 87% of the rural families. This proportion is higher among non-poor families. Nevertheless, earnings from work are still important to the income of the elderly. They are responsible for 31.2% of rural elderly income. The elderly living in rural areas work more than those living in urban ones, even those retired.


Those results suggest that compared to 1981, the Brazilian elderly population in 1998 is in much better condition. These changes seem to have affected more elderly living in rural areas. On the other hand, better life conditions experienced by the elderly population are contrasted with the effects of the continuous economic crisis experienced by the Brazilian economy. This has affected the young population more through unemployment, violence, drugs, teen-age pregnancy, marital disruption, etc. As a result, there has been an increase in the time adult children spend as dependents of their parents.

Three factors have been important in enabling such a situation: the widespread coverage of Social Security, health policies and improvements in medical technology. Nevertheless, better life condition for the elderly has meant marked costs in terms of Social Security benefits and health policies. Concern with Social Security costs is a frequent theme in literature. Nevertheless, the unexpected effects of the spread of Social Security benefit coverage on the elderly and their families should not be neglected in any public policy evaluation. There are 13 million benefited families. This huge value characterises the Social Security policy as a modern social policy capable of changing the Brazilian income distribution.