Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Mexico’s 99 Percent: How the Next President Can Reduce Poverty and Inequality

by Shannon K. O'Neil
January 19, 2012

A boy from the "Insurgentes de la Paz" (Peace Insurgents) school receives lessons inside an old bus turned into a class room in the settlement of Pueblo Nuevo, Oaxaca (Courtesy Reuters). A boy from the "Insurgentes de la Paz" (Peace Insurgents) school receives lessons inside an old bus turned into a class room in the settlement of Pueblo Nuevo, Oaxaca (Courtesy Reuters).

It is campaign season in Mexico, and aside from security issues, front-runners Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the PRD are focusing on poverty and inequality. Both criticize the past two PAN governments for not improving the lot of Mexico’s poor, and for perpetuating if not exacerbating an uneven playing field that benefits the few and not the many. In a recent campaign stop in the Southern state of Veracruz, Peña Nieto came down hard on the PAN, saying “[the PRI] knows what Mexico hasn’t achieved in the past decade. We haven’t forgotten that more people are poor, that we haven’t had the economic growth that creates jobs that the public demands.”

But recent data from the World Bank and Mexico’s own household survey call these claims into question. Over the past fifteen years, inequality has fallen consistently, and since 1996 Mexico’s Gini coefficient has dropped by nearly one percent each year (reaching pre-1980s crisis levels – 49.8 – in 2006). Poverty is also down slightly, as five million fewer people live on four dollars a day or less in 2010 than in 2005.

A number of factors are behind these trends. First, macroeconomic stability (even with slow growth) has been particularly beneficial for the poor, who, studies show, are hit the hardest by economic crises.  Real wages also improved, due to a mix of broader education and increased worker productivity. Finally, social spending targeting the poor rose. Programs such as Oportunidades (started under President Zedillo as Progresa), give monthly stipends to low income households that keep their kids healthy and in school, and now reach nearly six million families.

Unfortunately, the world financial crisis of 2008 brought this progress to a standstill. In contrast to the rest of Latin America, Mexico has seen an uptick in extreme poverty in its wake, with more families dropping below the poverty line even as the economy recovered in 2010. The big question going forward is whether – and how – Mexico can get back to spreading the gains of strong growth more evenly among the larger population. To make this happen, the next president should learn from the lessons of the last fifteen plus years – and focus on improving education, expanding targeted social programs, and redistributing wealth more generally (for instance through a more progressive tax system). These policies already have and would continue to make a difference in the lives of the many Mexicans that still struggle to make ends meet.

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