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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Can 80 Percent of Mexicans be Poor? The Debate over Poverty

by Shannon K. O'Neil
April 17, 2012

Apartment buildings stand behind a low-income neighborhood in Mexico City Apartment buildings stand behind a low-income neighborhood in Mexico City (Edgard Garrido/Courtesy Reuters).

A recent study highlighted in La Jornada, a Mexican newspaper, claims that some ninety million Mexicans are poor, roughly 80 percent of the total population. This contrasts drastically with calculations by the OECD (which put the poor closer to twenty-three million) or those by Mexican researchers Luis de la Calle and Luis Rubio (who estimate that 25 percent of Mexicans—approximately twenty-nine million—are poor).

So how should we define who is and isn’t poor? The World Bank includes everyone that earns more than two dollars a day; an expansive view that likely rings false for those scraping by just above this bare minimum. The OECD’s measurement is relative by country, based on the median household income. CONEVAL, a Mexican governmental  organization that conducts the country’s official poverty measurements, takes a multi-dimensional approach, with income considered alongside access to healthcare, education, social security, housing, and food. By this comprehensive measure, some fifty-two million Mexicans are poor.

The study profiled in La Jornada takes these poor, and adds the next CONEVAL category—those vulnerable to becoming poor (nearly another forty million)—to get to the total number of ninety million. Vulnerable, according to CONEVAL, means lacking access to one or more social services or having an income close to the poverty line.

Given CONEVAL’s methodology, it’s almost impossible to compare to other countries. But taking just one indicator—healthcare—the difference between poor and vulnerable in the United States is at least illustrative. Fifteen percent of the U.S. population is poor (roughly 47 million). Another 43 percent are one health emergency away from poverty—e.g., some 130 million are “vulnerable to poverty.” This suggests that 60 percent of Americans—or almost 180 million—are “poor” if we are using a more comprehensive definition of poverty, such as the one cited by La Jornada.

Calculations such as these are useful in any country, to show who and how people are vulnerable. But it is also important to see the differences, between the twenty plus million abjectly poor Mexicans, the thirty million more moderately poor, and the nearly forty million who aren’t, but whose hold on a more middle class life is tenuous. The distinctions matter especially for policymakers trying to design initiatives to support these different groups, helping all to gain valuable economic ground.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Rosie

    So Mexico has 110 million inhabitants, of which.
    20 million are “abjectly” poor,
    30 million are “moderately” poor, and
    40 million are “vulnerable”.
    That leaves only 20 million making a “decent” living. And a very small middle class indeed.
    Any way you look at the statistics, they are unacceptable. For decades, Neither the PRI nor the PAN parties have been able to improve the situation of the majority. It is about time that Mexicans did something to rescue themselves from this pitiful situation.

  • Posted by Shantonu

    Yes. They should do something about it. But what? Also, we in the United States should do something about it because it will not do to have this number of poor right on our doorstep and because we have a moral duty to help people in need.

    But what exactly should we do? It’s strange that any country in the G-20 should have this number of poor people. Should we encourage policies that are more redistributive? What should we do?

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