In the absence of well-functioning public transfer systems and safety nets, the family acts as the key provider of income and support through the intergenerational redistribution of resources. In this article, we use micro-level longitudinal data and a mix of methodologies to document the life-cycle patterns of financial and non-financial (time or in-kind) transfers in a population in rural Malawi. Underneath a well-established age pattern of intergenerational transfers in which transfer patterns change according to broad stages of the economic life cycle, our analyses document significant heterogeneity and fluidity. Intergenerational transfers are variable and reverse their direction, with individuals moving between the provider and recipient states repeatedly across their life course and within each major stage of the life-cycle. Contrary to common perceptions about family transfers ameliorating short-term shocks, transfers in our analyses are driven primarily by demographic factors such as changes in health, household size, and household composition, rather than short-term events. Overall, our analyses suggest that the role of transfers in this rural sub-Saharan context is significantly more complex than suggested by theories and evidence on aggregate transfer patterns, and at the micro-level, intergenerational transfers encapsulate multiple functions ranging from direct exchange to old-age support in the absence of a public pension system.
Published in a peer-reviewed journal of the Population Council.