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A virtuous cycle

Demographic censuses have offered insight into Brazilian society and fueled research in academia

Léo Ramos Chaves

As the 150th anniversary of its first edition approaches in 2022, the timing of the next Demographic Census of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) remains uncertain. What remains undeniable is the valuable contribution that each of its 11 editions has made to policymaking and countless scientific discoveries in a wide range of fields. In 2010, for example, a review of census data found that Brazil has the second highest diversity of indigenous ethnicities in the world—a total of 305 different groups. Research drawing on census data has shown how cash remittances from Brazilians living abroad sustain entire economies in small-town Minas Gerais and Rondônia. Other insights have revealed how women’s exclusion from the electoral process continued long after they were granted suffrage in Brazil; and that women’s participation in education rose sharply in the 1970s, to the point where by the 2000s there were more women entering and continuing in higher education than men.

The IBGE census is taken every ten years as the only survey of all households in Brazil’s 5,570 municipalities. Two separate questionnaires are used: a basic questionnaire for all households, and an extended questionnaire answered by a sample of 10% of households. “In addition to surveying living conditions in Brazil, the census is also used to update street maps and the national address list for statistical purposes. In its most recent edition, in 2010, the census compiled georeferenced data on more than 60 million households,” says Paulo de Martino Jannuzzi, a demographer at IBGE’s National Institute of Statistical Sciences (ENCE). Questionnaire items include age, gender, color, ethnicity, living conditions, education, and income, access to healthcare, migration, and other inquiries. A new edition of the census was due to occur in 2020, but had to be postponed due the COVID-19 pandemic. It has now been slated for 2022, at a cost of R$2.3 billion—the original budget of R$3.4 billion has been slashed by a third by the Ministry of the Economy, and this will likely require several topics—such as international emigration, household income, and rent—to be either excluded or covered in lesser detail. Researchers in fields such as demographics and anthropology hope these cuts will be reversed before the questionnaire is finalized.

In 2011, researchers at the State Data Analytics Foundation (SEADE) were running a study using census data to model population growth in São Paulo State’s 645 cities, when they made an intriguing discovery: the population in some minor cities had doubled in size, and most of the added population were men. “These growth rates were aberrant and much higher than in other cities,” says demographer Bernadette Cunha Waldvogel, head of SEADE’s demographics department.

Looking at the numbers, Waldvogel found that the population expansion was linked to the construction of correctional facilities in these municipalities after a large prison in the state capital, the infamous Carandiru, was shut down nine years prior. “We knew that prisons were being built in these locations, but no one knew what impact they would have on population dynamics until this was captured in the census data,” she says.

The Government of São Paulo also used population estimates prepared by SEADE based on census and vital-statistics data to develop its COVID-19 vaccination strategy, says Waldvogel. “To ensure a well-informed vaccination plan, we provided general population estimates by age, as well as more detailed breakdowns for the population older than 60 years,” she explains. But preparing projections with outdated information more than a decade old has posed a major challenge, she adds. In describing the importance of completing a new edition of the census, Waldvogel notes that, in the case of São Paulo, researchers are especially keen to get up-to-date information on migration and fertility. “The most recent census showed that net migration rates had declined significantly, and that fertility rates had fallen to 1.7 children per woman, below the replacement-level fertility rate of two children per woman. We need up-to-date information about people living in São Paulo to understand how these trends are affecting population patterns,” she explains.

Fertility data is used to estimate the rate of population aging and is essential for planning in the education system. Raquel Guimarães, an economist and demographer at the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), developed a study in 2015 for the Brazilian Ministry of Education’s (MEC) National Institute for Education Studies and Research (INEP) to estimate the size of the under-3 population and potential daycare and kindergarten demand over the following years. From the census data, she found that fertility rates were dropping across all Brazilian cities as in São Paulo. “This means the contingent of daycare-age children is decreasing, but because more women are entering the job market, daycare demand is still growing. Both of these aspects need to be factored in school planning,” she explains, noting that the IBGE census is the only source of data usable in estimating truancy among children and teens. This is because education-specific censuses, such as the Higher Education Census or the School Census, survey only students who are attending school.

In addition to supporting demographic studies, census data has provided important insight about the condition of women in Brazilian society over the decades. In a review of all previous editions of the IBGE census and the INEP Higher Education Census 2017, economist Lucilene Morandi, head of the Gender and Economics Research Center at Fluminense Federal University (UFF), showed how education indicators for women first began to improve in the last three decades of the twentieth century. “Now there are more women entering and continuing in higher education than men, although women have yet to close the gap in access to politics, the job market, and STEM careers,” she says.

From 1871 to 1889, only 1.6% of Brazilians completed primary and secondary education, mostly white, wealthy men. This began to change in the early decades of the twentieth century, when more women began to take jobs outside the home, and advocacy from the feminist movement became more prominent. “My review of the census data shows that it was only in the 1970s that the proportion of literate women exceeded that of men,” she says. In the 1960s, Brazilian women reached the age of 19 with an average of 1.7 years of schooling, compared to 1.9 years for men; by 2010, the ratio had reversed to respectively 5.2 years and 4.8 years. “The passing of the National Education Guidelines Act [LDB] in 1961 was a watershed for women’s participation in higher education,” says Morandi. By equating high school-level training for primary teachers—which was mostly attended by women—to scientific education, now known as secondary education, the law gave women equal opportunity for admission to university. “This allowed more women to apply for admission to college,” she explains.

Photos: Léo Ramos Chaves and Marcos Oliveira / Agência Senado Using census data, researchers can determine the contingent of children not attending school, and assess progress in education and women’s participation in the election processPhotos: Léo Ramos Chaves and Marcos Oliveira / Agência Senado

Election process
By combining census databases going back to 1930 with data from the High Electoral Court (TSE) archives, Fernando Limongi, a retired professor of political science at the University of São Paulo (USP) and now a lecturer at Getulio Vargas Foundation’s São Paulo School of Economics (EESP-FGV), was able to reconstruct Brazil’s municipal election results for executive and legislative offices from 1932 to 1965. He made an important finding on women’s historical participation in the electoral process. “I found that the people who were most excluded from the elections during this period were not the poor or illiterate as previously thought, but women,” he says. Women were granted suffrage in Rio Grande do Norte in 1927. Voting rights were extended to all women in Brazil in 1932, and they were able to exercise their rights for the first time in the elections for the Constituent Assembly in 1933. Because Getúlio Vargas’s (1882–1954) election for president in 1934 was by indirect vote, women would only participate in presidential elections in 1945.

“I analyzed municipal election records and intersected them with census data, and found that women had been significantly excluded from participating in the elections. There is no evidence that other social groups were similarly marginalized,” he says. From 1932 to 1964, women accounted for around 34% of total registered voters, which means that male eligible voters outnumbered women two to one. “This was one of the ways that men were able to maintain male authority within households. The State would not challenge it.”

Duval Magalhães Fernandes, a demographer at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais (PUC-MG), has conducted extensive research on immigration using IBGE’s historical series as inputs—census questions have included individuals’ place of birth since the first edition in 1872. “The census has always included data on foreign-born population, but the way this information has been used has changed over time. In 1938, during the Vargas administration, immigrant statistics informed a quota policy to limit immigration into Brazil,” he says.

When IBGE hired Italian demographer and statistician Giorgio Mortara (1885–1967) in 1940, the questionnaire was modernized to include questions about inter-city and inter-state migration. In 2010, the census incorporated inquiries about Brazilians migrating abroad. “One question asked the head of the household about whether anyone in the household had gone abroad, what country they were in, and characteristics such as gender and age. For the first time, we were able to map people’s municipal hometowns to their international destinations,” he says. This data, which was previously unavailable, notes Fernandes, allowed researchers to explore migratory dynamics in Brazil and abroad. He has since used this data to identify emigration patterns in the country.

“Emigrants’ primary destinations and gender vary from one region to another. Women bound for Spain, for example, mostly depart from Tocantins and Goiás, while most emigrants to the US and Portugal are from eastern Minas Gerais,” he says. Fernandes notes that many emigrants in the latter group first move to Rondônia, lured by its thriving agricultural sector, before eventually leaving the country. “In 2011 we began investigating why many people moving from eastern Minas Gerais to an area near the municipality of Ji-Paraná, in Rondônia, end up never returning to their hometowns, he says, noting that this pattern has not been observed in any other neighboring areas. With the 2010 census including data on Brazilians moving abroad, researchers were able to determine that most people who left eastern municipalities in Minas Gerais to live in Rondônia would eventually move to the US, where they would find jobs and send money back to their families in Brazil. “There are small towns in Rondônia and eastern Minas Gerais whose entire economies are sustained by cash remittances from relatives living abroad.”

This provided a better understanding of the economic difficulties that many municipalities in the region faced as a result of the 2010 financial crisis in the US. “Businesses in cities such as Poté, in Minas Gerais, derived most of their revenues from cash remittances from the US. When they diminished or ceased altogether, many businesses went bankrupt and unemployment rose,” he recounts, adding that there are currently more than 4 million Brazilians living abroad, and around 1.5 million foreigners living in Brazil.

Photos: Sergio Amaral / MDS, Léo Ramos Chaves and Fellipe Abreu Enumeration of quilombola populations began in 2010. The next edition of the survey should provide insight into changes in domestic and international migration patternsPhotos: Sergio Amaral / MDS, Léo Ramos Chaves and Fellipe Abreu

International migration
The twenty-first century has opened a new chapter in the history of international migrations. “In Brazil, for example, only after the next census is published will we be able to measure the impact from Haitian immigration to small towns during the previous decade,” says Roberta Guimarães Peres, a demographer at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC). In a FAPESP-funded study using census data, Peres found that up to the mid-twentieth century, most internal migrants moved from the Northeast to the Southeast and especially São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte. “But in the 2000 edition of the census we identified an important shift in these patterns. More migrants were moving to cities that were nearer and smaller, rather than only to major cities in the Southeast. The 2010 census showed that international migrants were increasingly settling in mid-sized cities, creating new immigration hubs outside large metropolitan areas,” she says. Peres notes that the following census could provide insight into recent shifts in international migration patterns in Brazil during the 2010s.

The way cities have transformed over time has been captured by each successive edition of the census. Roberto Luiz do Carmo, associate director at the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences at the University of Campinas (IFCH-UNICAMP), who has researched urban change for more than a decade, describes how agricultural expansion in the Midwest has driven rapid urban growth in the region. Over the period covered by the censuses taken between 1970 and 2010, land concentration fueled by an expanding soy industry led many displaced smallholders to move to cities. “The data shows a link between agribusiness expansion and city growth in areas at the agricultural frontier,” says Carmo, who chairs the Brazilian Association of Population Studies (ABEP). “Brazil has undergone a major transformation in the recent past, especially since its return to democracy. The census and its historical series provide a basis for understanding these changes,” says Limongi of EESP-FGV.

The census topic about race and color, the most extensively modified topic in recent decades, incorporated indigenous ethnicity for the first time in 1991. Before then, indigenous people were classified as mixed-race and were only included in the census if they lived in religious missions or in villages under the auspices of the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI). “Indigenous was first included as an ethnic category in the question about color and race 30 years ago. And while census takers were not able to cover all indigenous villages at the time, we began to get a notion of the size of the indigenous population in the country,” explains Marta Maria do Amaral Azevedo, a demographer and anthropologist at UNICAMP’s Center for Population Studies (NEPO).

Over the last two decades, Azevedo has been working with IBGE to develop improved methods for capturing information about indigenous peoples. As part of these efforts, in 2010 IBGE began using Indian reservation maps developed by FUNAI to determine what sectors would be covered by census takers. “In the most recent census, if an individual self-identified as indigenous, they were asked follow-up questions about their ethnicity and what language they spoke,” she says. The new data revealed there were a total of 305 different indigenous peoples in Brazil—preliminary estimates suggested there were only around 200. “This made Brazil the second most ethnically diverse country in the world, after Indonesia,” says Azevedo, who has formerly served as chair at FUNAI. This discovery opened new indigenous research fronts at higher education institutions across Brazil.

Azevedo’s doctoral thesis, which she defended in 2003 at UNICAMP, analyzed the fertility of several ethnicities based on data collected in 1992 by the Federation of Indigenous Organizations in Rio Negro, a region hosting some 400 villages. “I helped to conduct the survey and, when reviewing the results, found that indigenous peoples in the region had a higher fertility rate—around 5.4 children per woman in 1992—than the national average of 2.8. These findings suggested that those indigenous peoples were replenishing the population they lost throughout the twentieth century,” she says. Data from the 2010 census led other researchers to similar conclusions in relation to other indigenous peoples in different regions of Brazil.

Léo Ramos Chaves Census data on population aging and urban mobility have served as inputs for research in different fieldsLéo Ramos Chaves

Recent census results have made the health of indigenous populations a primary research interest at institutions such as the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ), observes Ricardo Ventura Santos, an anthropologist at the National Public Health School (ENSP-FIOCRUZ) and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s (UFRJ) National Museum. “Official statistics have shown that indigenous mortality rates are the highest in the country, sparking discussion around inequality and social justice,” he notes. An indigenous health research group at FIOCRUZ has worked to raise discussion about the issue in international circles by comparing the situation of indigenous populations in Brazil to those in countries such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. “Indigenous peoples face inequalities in different regions around the world. Census data allow international comparisons to be made that can inform public policies to address inequities.”

The “Health, Wellness, and Aging” (SABE) survey, a 20-year longitudinal multi-cohort study on living and health conditions among elderly residents in São Paulo, has used census data to create representative samples of the city’s approximately 1.8 million residents older than 60 years. Yeda Aparecida de Oliveira Duarte, a professor of nursing at USP’s School of Public Health (FSP), who is heading the FAPESP-Funded initiative, explains that the survey is structured around the IBGE’s census sectors. These discrete sectors, each with 200 to 300 households, are grouped by social and economic characteristics and assigned to different census takers. “We select samples from the census sectors to include in our survey based on residents’ gender, age, and social, economic, and housing conditions,” says Duarte.

The survey, completed in 2019, showed that elderly people in São Paulo were increasingly using private healthcare services instead of National Healthcare System (SUS) providers. She attributes this to the lack of family-health programs in the city, the long waiting times in public health services, and the availability of age-specific private health insurance plans. In contrast, in other Brazilian cities most elderly residents rely on the SUS.

The IBGE census sectors were also used in two studies led by Celia Landmann Szwarcwald, a mathematician at the Information and Health Laboratory of the FIOCRUZ Science Outreach and Health Technology Institute (LIS/ICICT). One was the National Health Survey (PNS) in 2013. The second is a study she is currently conducting on trachoma—an infectious disease that causes blindness and is linked to social inequalities—as part of a project funded by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). “In both studies we prepared population samples based on the stratified census sectors. Without this data, neither of these studies would have been possible,” she says. “The trachoma study has produced some good news: the disease has now been eradicated in rural and poor areas of Brazil’s North and Northeast.”

Economist Wasmália Socorro Barata Bivar, a professor at PUC-RJ who previously served as chair and research director at IBGE from 2004 to 2011, explains that some statistics can only be compiled in collaboration with academia. “Before enumerating our indigenous population, for example, anthropological studies are conducted to identify these communities and to delimit the areas where they live,” says Bivar, noting that IBGE is one of the few institutes in the world with a mandate covering both fields—geography and statistics. Each edition of the census, says Bivar, is supported by advisory committees of experts in different fields. “IBGE relies on academia and vice a versa. We need science to define what data we will compile and how to compile them. The information then returns to researchers and informs their studies, in a virtuous cycle.”

1. SABE: a longitudinal multi-cohort study on living and health conditions among elderly residents in São Paulo – 2015 cohort (nº 14/50649-6); Grant Mechanism Thematic Project; Principal Investigator Yeda Aparecida de Oliveira Duarte; Investment R$1,900,033.05.
2. São Paulo migration observatory: the phases and faces of migration in São Paulo (nº 11/01182-0); Grant Mechanism Postdoctoral Fellowship; Supervisor Claudio Salvadori Dedecca (UNICAMP); Grant Beneficiary Roberta Guimaraes Peres; Investment R$148,917.21.
3. Brazil’s indigenous population: an analysis of 2010 census data (nº 14/50758-0); Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator Marta Maria do Amaral Azevedo (UNICAMP); Investment R$127,320.00.

Scientific articles
LIMONGI, F. et al. Sufrágio universal, mas… Só para homens. O voto feminino no Brasil. Revista de Sociologia e Política. Vol. 27, no. 70. 2019.
MORANDI, L. e MELO, H. P. Mujeres y educación en Brasil: Una mirada de género. In: La educación de las mujeres en Iberoamérica: Análisis histórico, pp. 719–58. Tirant Humanidades. Espanha: Valencia, 2019.