The bulk of Mexico's 122 million people remain mired in poverty, and with little chance to escape it. Even the middle classes struggle to be upwardly mobile. Food for thought, for incoming Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador stormed to victory in Mexico's presidential election on Sunday after a campaign largely driven by the leftist-populist candidate's calls for greater social justice and an end to corruption by the political elite. López Obrador, widely known as AMLO, called Sunday night for unity and pledged to govern "for the good of all, the poor first" and show a "special preference for the humble and most forgotten." In the days before the election, Fernando Chávez took a deeper look at poverty and social mobility in Mexico:
MEXICO CITY — One of the surest indicators of a country's level of fairness is social mobility, as measured within a certain timeframe. These are tricky things to calculate, of course, but when there are indisputable signs that people are moving up the social ladder, it means free-market and public-sector policies in place have created opportunities allowing the poor to leave their state of poverty.
In Mexico, there is a lot of data suggesting exactly the opposite. The rigorous findings of various sociological studies in recent decades don't give us cause for even moderate optimism, though they have certainly allowed us to at least discuss this public threat and perhaps seek imaginative solutions to the primary cause: poverty itself.
Above all, the precarious and perverse mechanisms that govern wealth and income distribution in Mexico have to do with the type of economic development the country has pursued in the last 15 years. Between 2000 and 2017, Mexico registered per capita GDP growth of less than 1%. And it was no coincidence. At this rate, it would take 70 years — three generations basically — for the average income to double (supposing nothing else changes).
Reliable studies show that highly unequal economies with low growth rates tend, for the most part, to also have limited social mobility. This is undoubtedly our case. In this historical context, the aspirations of the rural and urban poor to improve their lives both as individuals and in familial contexts are systematically thwarted by insuperable obstacles such as low wages, lack of formal employment, unequal access to education and healthcare, gender, geography and skin color. By this I refer to the racial discrimination that affects in so many ways our ancestral, indigenous population.
The anatomy of Mexican social life offers clear evidence of the deplorable legacy of three decades of dominant liberal economics.
Thus, being poor, earning little, receiving basic or bad schooling, being a woman or having Native American features, for example, have become a toxic social and cultural amalgam of our present disadvantages. In such adverse conditions, not even the worthy example of our famed indigenous president, Benito Juárez (1858-1872), could boost the poor's determination to better their life horizons.
Mexico's socio-economic inequalities have many manifestations, the best-documented and most blatant of which include poor school results, dropping out of school, limited healthcare access, morbid obesity, drug addiction, teen pregnancies, and youth crime or violence. These further feed the vicious circle of poverty—social immobility.
Separating fact and fiction
Between the pauperized masses and the upper classes lie the middle classes, which, in theory at least, does have access to social mobility. Yet the middle class has very little social and economic weight in this country of 122 million inhabitants, most of whom are poor or extremely poor. Indeed, middle-class acquisitions tend to evaporate when recession arrives, or when GDP growth rates fall below the rate of population growth for long periods.
From time to time, defenders of economic advances cite specific cases to argue that the middle class is growing in size and strength. There's been much talk, for example, about the so-called "new" middle classes, which have supposedly used education and high-tech skills to move up.
Arguably, though, their numbers are still very small. And in general, the data and arguments backing the mobile-middle-class theory are often inaccurate, and more akin to simplistic perceptions that lack solid empirical foundations. The picture — of a great many people leaving poverty behind and acceding to higher social levels — is most of the time a fictional one.
Lopez Obrador addresses the Mexican people at Zocalo square after his election — Photo: Miguel Juarez Lugo/ZUMA
What can public education do to mitigate inequality and foment upward mobility? A central stipulation of Mexico's 1917 Constitution, still in force, is free and secular education. Between 1940 and 1980 approximately, free access to all levels of education explains to some extent the reduction of social and regional divisions in that period.
Since then, the spread of neoliberal thinking in top policy-making spheres has gradually thwarted the equalizing and compensatory effects of public education. A close look at the family life of the poor reveals the unmistakable relationship between harsh lack of opportunities and the poor schooling of parents, even when they earn more money by working or receiving subsidies. We find here another sign of this bitter fatality — that those who are born poor stay poor.
The anatomy of Mexican social life offers clear evidence of the deplorable legacy of three decades of dominant liberal economics. The country's position among the world's top 20 economies has been of little use, as is the intermittent inclusion of some of our top entrepreneurs among the world's super rich.
Mexico's oft-cited "structural reforms' and laudable macroeconomic balance and monetary stability have ultimately failed to attain their most essential objective: mass prosperity. We therefore need a new social pact, and quickly, to start reversing the socio-economic trends that have been punitive to most Mexicans. It will be a difficult, obstacle-laden task, but nobody in their right mind can deny the need for it.