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Census: Chile More Prosperous, Less Populous than Expected

A new census reveals that Chile's population is smaller and slightly wealthier than previously believed. (AP Photo)

September 25, 2012

After a four-year, $62-million process, the Chilean government released initial results from its 2012 Population and Housing Census last month. The census, organized by the National Institute of Statistics (INE), surveyed over 98 percent of the country’s residents and found Chile now has a population of 16.6 million people. That means Chile’s population grew by 10.1 percent—or an additional 1.5 million Chileans—since the last census took place a decade ago. But the count was lower than expected due to a declining birthrate, leading policymakers to raise concerns over how the country will find the labor force necessary to fuel long-term economic growth.

Chile saw its population growth rate fall from 1.6 percent in the decade up to 1992 down to 0.97 percent over the past ten years. This gives Chile the fifth-lowest birthrate in Latin America and puts the level on par with OECD countries, said INE Director Francisco Labbé.  With the birthrate decline linked to women’s rising workforce participation, Chile’s population fell 0.8 million short of the 17.4 million statisticians expected. In macroeconomic terms, this means Chileans are slightly richer than previously thought; the IMF per capita estimate came in at $15,453—a figure that will be revised closer to $16,500 per person. Moreover, the poorest comunas, or municipalities, decreased in size as a result of shrinking poverty levels and improved social mobility.

The declining birthrate is not likely to affect short-term economic growth, says University of Chile economist Alejandro Alarcón. Chile’s economy grew 5.5 percent in the second quarter of 2012 while unemployment stands at 6.5 percent. Nonetheless, there could be labor supply issues in the long term.

Economist Patricio Rojas points to increasing female participation in the workforce to offset the problem. The government rolled out two initiatives this year that could boost women’s presence in the workplace: the Female Employment Bonus subsidizes the most vulnerable 30 percent of female workers as well as their employers while the Mujer Minera program encourages female employment in the mining sector. If Chile starts to age in line with rich-country patterns, the government should pursue long-term policies encouraging childbirth, cautions Chilean political scientist Patricio Navia. In Fall 2011, the government enacted new maternity leave legislation that extends paid leave for mothers from three to six months and also covers part-time and freelance workers. President Sebastián Piñera stated that he hopes “this new postnatal maternity leave, this new way of reconciling work and family, will generate a boost in birth rates, infancy and maternity in Chile.”

Migration could also help plug the labor hole, with some referring to Chile as the home of the new “American Dream.” The Interior Ministry gave out work visas to 168,000 immigrants from 138 countries over the past five years and the number of migrants swelled 72 percent in the six years up to 2008. Most of Chile’s migrants come from Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Haiti, Peru, and Spain. Professional Argentines and Spaniards come seeking better economic options while skilled Andean workers tend to come from poor urban classes to work in construction, agriculture, domestic help, health services, and mining. Internal migration plays an important role in the country’s evolving labor force as well; the census found that nearly a third of residents of remote regions moved to urbanized areas over the past two decades.

Full census results and policy implications will be made available by the INE in 2014.

In other regional demographic news:

  • Bolivia plans to release a census in November, but critics complain that the survey will lose “credibility” as it will not include the 40 communities that inhabit the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (better know as TIPNIS, its Spanish acronym), reports Bolivia’s Los Tiempos.
  • On September 24, Cuba wrapped up its first “Raulista” census, counting, among other things, people, energy usage, and appliances and electronics.
  • Recently released results from a Falkland Islands census show zero population growth in six years and twice as many self-identified “Falkland Islanders” as British.