Essay On Poverty In Latin America

The way policy makers define poverty dictates the types of strategies that they use for alleviation, and their success. In Latin America numerous definitions have been employed, the current favourite being the profiling approach used by Conditional Cash Transfer Programmes such as Oppurtunidades in Mexico, and Bolsa Escola in Brazil. This essay aims to examine the various definitions of poverty on offer to Latin America, and the various problems associated with each of them. I will also study the failures and successes of the profiling approach through the two aforementioned case studies, including issues regarding methodology. In conclusion I will offer some ideas on how Latin American social policy makers could change their approach to defining poverty in order to achieve more progress. I will argue for new research aiming to find out who the deprived themselves feel really needs help and how. Latin America must adopt a more wide-spread, structural approach using broad, and institutional definitions of the problem in order to compliment it’s remarkable economic progress by easing or even alleviating poverty within it’s borders. This is the point which I ultimately aim to convey.


The way Policy makers define the complex concept of social deprivation which we have come to know under the umbrella term of ‘poverty’, is critical in dictating what kind of solutions they will employ, and their effectiveness. In Latin America the most recent trend is to define poverty using a typical profile of a poor person; whose most notable features are lack of income, education and nutrition. In this essay I will explore the various positives and negatives of ways in which poverty can and has been defined. Measures of some kind are clearly essential. We cannot solve a problem if we do not know what the problem is. Also, impact evaluations are vital for social security programmes. These can only take place if you have a clear view of what and who you are trying to help (Rawlings, 2004).

Definitions must accommodate the complex nature of the problem. There are huge complexities involved in the causes and symptoms of poverty in Latin America, making it extremely difficult to create a streamlined definition of exactly what the problem consists of. The usefulness of precise definitions of poverty is entirely dependent on the extent to which they can capture a wide range of symptoms, causes, and catalysts. Critical to allow this is the broad view that the problems commonly associated with ‘poverty’, are problems because they negatively affect quality of life, wellbeing, and opportunity. I will use these terms to refer to the problem throughout.

Focusing on finding an appropriate definition of poverty in order to create effective social policy must not obstruct broader reform to Latin American institutions in order to foster a culture of even growth and opportunity throughout society. Solving the problem of how to define poverty and create alleviation policies, is not the only battle that Latin America faces in making a more evenly prosperous society. In this context, I will highlight how recent approaches have been accused of “aggressive prioritisation of the poor” (Rawlings, 2004, pp.7), to the detriment of more thorough reform of wider systemic inequalities.

Although this essay will focus on problems of poverty in Latin America, it is first necessary to examine the more general problems with precise measures of poverty which have been tried and tested in Latin America. I will then go onto look at two key case studies of Latin American social policy; Opportunidades in Mexico, and Bolsa Escola in Brazil. I will examine how the programmes work, and how the particular ways in which the policy makers have identified the poor have, mainly negatively, affected their success. I will then touch on some other general problems with creating very precise definitions of poverty before suggesting some ideas on how Latin America might move forward and develop it’s conception of poverty into a theory which is more conducive to really effective policies.


Monetary Poverty Lines

The ‘poverty line’, pioneered by Charles Booth and Seebhom Rowntree in studies of the British working class in the late 1800s, has become the most widely used method of measuring and defining poverty in the developing world. Adopted in 1990 by the World Bank, the ‘dollar-a-day’ extreme poverty line has been used in global initiatives like the Millennium Development Goals, as well as by Latin American governments to define extreme poverty in the region.

Monetary poverty lines provide a simple common standard for comparison of poverty in different countries, evaluating the progress of policy approaches, and identifying bands of extreme, and relative poverty (Chen and Ravallion, 2008). Monetary measures are also effective for use in development education in the west, allowing people to gain a concept of the extent of poverty, with the hope that they might be motivated to act or lobby governments. However, as emotive as monetary statistics can be, there is little evidence for their effectiveness in converting empathy into active altruism as most developed nations have yet to meet their pledged 0.7% in ODA (IPC, 2004).

Despite these advantages, monetary measures are now widely recognised by the development community as being inadequate as a definition of poverty (IPC, 2004). The income of a household does not necessarily determine its quality of life, or level of opportunity. Poverty lines fail to encompass the complex web of issues that contribute to deprivation. The International Poverty Centre has now concluded that “Global poverty counts based on $1 a day have neither normative value, nor empirical relevance for poverty analysis” (IPC, 2004, pp. 5). Monetary measures are also unable to be universal and accurate because of fast economic changes, and differences in local purchasing powers. The poverty line becomes useless during an economic crisis, exemplified by the Latin American inflation crisis in the 1980s when the price of living and the availability of funds deteriorates (Helwege, 1995). Furthermore, World Bank Economists have recently alleged that the use of the ‘dollar-a-day’ poverty line has lead to a significant underestimation of global poverty, and the measures required to ease it (Chen and Ravaillion, 2008). The negatives of monetary measures are therefore beginning to far outweigh the positives in both Latin America, and beyond.

Combined Measures

In light of the problems with monetary definitions, a new range of combined monetary and social measures have emerged to identify poverty, such as the Human Development Index (HDI). Combined measures are a progression from monetary measures as they acknowledge that raising income is not enough to lift people out of poverty, and that there are a whole range of issues that need to be tackled in order to improve people’s quality of life and opportunity. For example education, gender equality, health, and even sustainable development (World Bank, 2000/1). They lead to policies which adopt a multi-dimensional approach.

However, combined measures still feature fairly specific criteria which are applied to many different countries and communities around the world, all of which experience different problems, and different forms of deprivation. The problem of universality is therefore still relevant. Also, different elements of the measure improve at different rates, making it difficult to highlight exactly which area still needs work. For example, in Brazil in the 1990s the government announced massive improvements in the HDI, but this was mainly due to increases in access to knowledge rather than health care or income, which remained poor. (IPC, Jan 2004).

Profiling the Poor

Profiling has been the method used to define and identify the poor in Latin America’s most recent social policy strategies, prinicipally the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) Programmes now in place all over the region. They reflect an understanding of the idea that poverty is not just about Economic Growth and income (Birdsall, 1998), as well as accepting the need for a precise definition and target population given the limited nature of government budgets (Lavinas, 2001).

Once the definition of who the poor are is established, means-testing has to be used to identify the individuals who fit into that bracket. This has led to various problems, not least a huge increase in bureaucracy, complex computer systems, corruption and considerable expense in many regions (Rawlings, 2004). In her recent Research on Mexico’s Oppurtundiades, Molyneux (2006) found that participants felt means-testing was unfair and inaccurate. Many of the beneficiaries felt that there were people greatly in need, who did not fit into the precise definition of poverty implied by the means-tested profile. A good example is those who fall into the particular profile categories only during a recession or during a low in informal employment (Molyneux, 2006). I will discuss these problems further in case studies of Brazil and Mexico.

Sen’s Capability Measure

Poverty must be seen as the deprivation of basic capabilities rather than merely the lowness of incomes” (Sen, 1999, pp.87)

Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom (1999) defines poverty as anything that severely decreases a person’s capabilities. I will argue that Sen’s definition is more successful in incorporating the complex range of issues that may be a part of the deprivation, than the other measures I have mentioned. He goes beyond basic indicators such as a lack of income or decline in health and nutrition. For example, the other measures would include unemployment as a cause of poverty because of it’s affects on income and nutrition and something which might be solved by cash transfers or education. Sen however, acknowledges that in reality there are also issues of psychological harm, loss of motivation, loss of skill, decline in self-confidence, disruption of family relations, social stigma, and gender asymmetries. None of these things have anything to do with income, or even the standard quality of life indicators, however they can be just as much of a problem (Sen, 1999). Sen’s definition of poverty should play a key role in informing improvements in poverty alleviation schemes in Latin America.


Latin America’s social policy has been described in the literature as “a laboratory of tests, structural adjustments, and philanthropy” (Haagh, 2006, pp. 347). Across the region, there have been experiments with various definitions of poverty and resulting alleviation policies in attempts to solve the problems caused by rapid uneven development (Haagh, 2006). The key debate currently is whether poverty and the policies designed to tackle it, should be based on targeted schemes for the poorest, or on widespread reform of institutions and structures. Some see poverty as a phenomenon affecting specific social groups; others view it as a more wide-reaching problem which needs to be addressed by the whole of society (Haagh, 2006). I will argue that the current trend of state-sponsored, locally administered, targeted, ‘bottom-up’ programmes has to change, and that broader structural reform is necessary before long-term improvements in the quality of life of the poorest can be sustained. I will first outline two examples of the CCT schemes in the region, and how the way they have defined poverty has dictated the design of the policies, negatively and positively; Oppurtunidades in Mexico, and Bolsa Escola in Brazil.

Mexico’s Oppurtunidades

Oppurtunidades is Mexico’s CCT scheme. It is based on a definition of poverty which revolves around lack of income; education; and nutrition. The programme also employs the theory of ‘co-responsibility’; the idea that the solution to the problem lies in the empowerment of the poor themselves, and in equipping them with the tools they need to help themselves (Molyneux, 2006). The programme had 25 million beneficiaries in 2005 (Molyneux, 2006) receiving cash transfers and nutritional assistance per family, means-tested according to their income and dependents and conditional on the school attendance of their children.

Oppurtunidades uses existing gender roles to distribute assistance to have maximum chance of increasing educational attainment and family income. Cash grants are given to the mothers in the families, the school fee stipend is 10% higher for girls, and pregnant and breast feeding women are given particular support. (Molyneux, 2006). The belief that poverty can be defined as a mainly feminine problem is not totally false, however Oppurtunidades is an example of how using precise definitions of poverty for policy, can cause problems. Molyneux argues that focusing so much on a definition of poverty which puts lack of education above all else as the principle cause and symptom, neglects the complexity of the situation. The programme targets mothers as the vessel through which child welfare and education can be improved, and poverty eased. She argues that in doing this, and in excluding men from any responsibility for their children’s welfare, the scheme reinforces restrictive traditional female roles, and increases their work load. The scheme does not include any kind of help for women to increase their own opportunities for example job training. It only uses their culturally engrained place as a Mother to further educational improvements for their children (Molyneux, 2006).

As seen with the case study of Mexico’s Oppurtunidades, gender is an enormous issue for social and welfare policy, and must be considered in any definition of poverty. Pay gaps between sexes are an important factor. The World Bank estimates that women earn 14-53% less than women in Latin America. (Helwege, 1995). However, Helwege (1995) and Molyneux (2006) argue that policy makers must not confuse poverty as an issue that often appears at the same time as gender inequality, with an issue that causes gender inequality. Women are poor because of wider structural issues within Latin America. Policy makers need to be very careful about reinforcing these structural problems, or detracting from the real reason that they exist when defining poverty (Jackson, 1996).

Brazil’s Bolsa Escola

Bolsa Escola is a similar CCT in Brazil which originated in Brasilia and has now been taken up all over the country. It is a carefully targeted scheme which defines the poorest as those with least access to education and income, in particular children vulnerable to child labour (Lavinas, 2001). The programme consists of a family allowance for chosen beneficiary households conditional on the school attendance of the children. Child labour has not been eradicated, as the programme is limited to classroom time. Children are still working at the weekends and after school which seriously restricts their chances of progress (Lavinas, 2001). However, the International Labour Organisation argues that it has been very successful in improving the credentials of the extreme poor, for example a huge improvement in school attendance, health, and education. (ILO, 2001).

There are several problems associated with the narrow profile of the poor employed by Bolsa Escola. In some regions, for instance the Rio slums, the use of profiling in order to determine who the poor are, has made it possible for local distributing bodies to impose their own personal beliefs on the distribution of assistance. In Rio the evangelical church began using their own criteria to determine who would receive state food cheques through the programme on “religious, moral and behavioural criteria” (Lavinas, 2001, pp. 4).

Secondly, in Lavinas’s 2001 evaluation of the programme in Recife, she found that teachers dealing with children who returned to school as a result of the programme, experienced severe problems with disruption, behaviour, and a hugely increased workload (Lavinas, 2001, pp.50) This problem is a result of the programme not identifying with broader causes and symptoms of deprivation for example psychological issues and low-self esteem. In order to really help those pupils, the programmes definition of poverty must be wider still and begin tackle anti-social behaviour through counselling and special attention for vulnerable children.

The Bolsa Escola definition of poverty means that coverage of the target population is fairly low. The scheme identifies the poorest by income (half or one third of the minimum wage) and then further cuts down it’s recipients to those who have children aged 7 to 14, and other criteria including number of dependents. The overlapping of these criteria and rigorous targeting means that many people who have an extremely low quality of life and low quality of opportunity are excluded (Lavinas, 2001). Money being spent on heavy bureaucracy and administration for targeting and profiling the poor could go to better use (Rawlings, 2004). Bolsa Escola only covers primary school children; features no long term goals for beneficiaries; and no possibility of funding for higher education; or improved access to training schemes for long-term improvements in quality of opportunity for the deprived.

It is clear that the current trend for ‘bottom-up’ schemes targeting only the poorest, and using narrow definitions of what the problems of poverty are, have many problems. This is because the deprivation which is so rife in Latin America is not of one type or category. As I shall outline, there are many different faces to the problem, and it is almost impossible to create a totally efficient social policy which is based on any specific definition of poverty.


Through case studies it can be seen that factors such as gender can make the various definitions of poverty which I have described very difficult to apply to policy choices. I will now discuss two more of the factors which make creating effective and precise definitions of poverty extremely difficult, before outlining some of my own ideas about how Latin American legislators might avoid obstacles to precise definitions, while still managing to identify and combat deprivation and lack of opportunity.

Urban and Rural Poverty

“The Urban poor face a different set of risks and opportunities to the rural poor. Understanding these differences is critical to creating effective social safety nets” (Fay, 2005, pp. 13)

In different regions, different factors signify deprivation, a poor quality of life, or minimal opportunity. It is almost impossible to create a universal definition of poverty that can be applied to all projects in one region (IPC, 2004, pp. 9). The need for broad and flexible definitions is particularly evident with the example of rural and urban poverty differences in Latin America. The growing poverty in the enormous cities of the region brings problems unique to their location, which require a whole new system of defining and identifying the poor. Any allegation that urban poverty is less acute because of proximity to public services, is false. Increased proximity rarely leads to increased access for the poorest, and the problems in the cities are more complex than ever (IPC, 2005).

For the urban poor, it is much more important to include vulnerability to violent crime in a definition of poverty. In Brazil, half of all homicides take place in Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo, and violent crime is most common in deprived areas (IPC, 2005).  Violence must be included in defining urban poverty because of the possible loss of human capital as a result of homicide, injury, or mental illness (IPC, 2005). However, the fear that urban violence generates is also a significant hindrance to opportunity and quality of life, which has to be considered when defining urban poverty, but is less relevant to rural areas. The problem of crime and gang culture is associated with the weak family ties, diversity, population density, and lack of opportunity unique to the deprived in cities. In rural areas there tend to be more stable social networks, including family and village safety nets (Fay, 2005).Violence is also increased in urban areas by special dangers such as the close proximity of rich and poor leading to resentment and an increase in crime. This is a particular problem in Mexico City (Fay, 2005).

The urban poor are more likely to be positively affected by growth because they are more integrated into the market economy, however they are also more vulnerable to shocks in the market, for example huge rises in unemployment or food prices (Fay, 2005, pp.3). Urban services are totally overwhelmed because of high population density, and are weak and inefficient for the poorest, in particular, poor water supply and sanitation which often leads to disease. Housing for the poor in Latin American cities consists mainly of temporary shelters, and favellas, often on steep areas prone to flooding, landslides and seismic activity; further compounding infrastructural problems.

Therefore different definitions of poverty for urban and rural poverty must be created, and different types of measures must be employed in order to combat them.


Defining and identifying poverty opens up a minefield of methodological problems. Even to establish the most basic monetary definition is extremely difficult. The dollar-a-day line was established by putting together similar poverty lines from 33 countries. However, many of those lines were arrived at by unofficial, unskilled researchers. Also, the sample included data from rich countries like Japan and the USA where the standard and cost of living are much higher (IPC, 2004). Once it is established, a poverty line is likely to be almost immediately inaccurate somewhere, as economies, exchange rates, and prices change. The dollar a day line for example was based on 1985 data and exchange rates, but was not updated until this year, when Chen and Ravallion (2008) recommended an increase of the extreme poverty line to $1.45 a day in order to prevent the underestimation of poverty.

Latin America is a notoriously difficult region in which to collect data and census material, because of the geographic and demographic diversity of the area. Country specific poverty lines have therefore been sketchy. Despite that, the most recent working paper for the World Bank Development Research Group argues that data for the region has improved massively. The population represented by the data used by the World Bank to devise policy has risen from 48.2% in 1981, to 95.7% in 2005 (Chen and Ravallion, 2008)

However, the same problems still remain. For example, in order to obtain data for combined measures, poverty profiles, or poverty lines, units of measurement must be employed. This creates a plethora of further problems. Every unit of measurement which estimates poverty on more than an individual basis is going to disguise disparities between social groups. For example, the ‘per household’ measure which has been widely used to establish definitions of poverty by international institutions, has been criticised for disguising gender and age disparities within each household which may be important (IPC, 2004). However to collect accurate data per individual, would not only be extremely time consuming and expensive, but it would also restrict the ability to compare and evaluate the data.


Establishing precise definitions of poverty whose ‘cons’ do not outweigh their ‘pros’ is therefore extremely difficult. However, in order to combat deprivation in Latin America, policies must be developed to help get people on the ladder of rapid growth. In order to create these policies, governments must have some definition of who they are aiming to assist. Three points can be made about possible future approaches to defining poverty in order to combat this. Firstly, there should be a focus on less specific, more capability based definitions like that of Sen (1999); secondly, new methodologies should be adopted in order to find out from the poor themselves who needs help; and thirdly, more emphasis should be put on broad structural reform in order to make the institutions of Latin America more conducive to equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity.

Focus on Quality of Life, Opportunity, and Capability

Poverty and deprivation are about opportunity to improve your own quality of life. Many things can affect this. People on the lower end of the economic spectrum have extremely complex ‘livelihood strategies’, which may not always be based on income, especially in rural areas (Chambers, 1997). Definitions of poverty must be open and flexible, focusing not on what policy makers believe to be the precise material ingredients of a poor life, and rather on what people themselves believe to be restricting their quality of life and opportunities. The administrators of Bolsa Escola in Recife, Brazil, focused determinedly on primary school attendance, informed by a definition of poverty which revolved around income, and education, or the lack of. However, as Lavinas notes, increasing primary school attendance rates does not necessarily increase a family’s ability to escape poverty. The programme may even have been better to focus on fewer families, but for longer periods of time in order to make a real difference (Lavinas 2001)

Amartya Sen’s definition mentioned at the beginning of this discussion employs vaguer criteria, which still allows policy makers to definitely identify who is poor. He suggests that in order to uncover the extreme poor, on a group by group, area by area basis, we simply try to discover who has “the basic capability to live to a mature age without succumbing to premature mortality” (Sen, 1999). To identify different levels of relative poverty, we should then raise the question to include more advanced forms of capability, and establish who, for whatever reason, can achieve basic goals for example achieving a certain level of nutrition for their families. This definition based on the concept of capability accommodates the possibility that different negative factors will have different degrees of damage on different social groups for example on the basis of gender, or race.

“Sen’s capabilities framework offers a more flexible approach to well-being, since capabilities may be formulated which reflect specifically gendered disadvantage, and include, for example, freedom from violence”

New, Participatory Methodology

The growth of Participatory and Rapid Rural appraisal techniques for use in anti-poverty programmes at the community level (Chambers, 1997) should now be accommodated into defining poverty with a view to policy responses. When Molyneux interviewed participants in Mexico’s Oppurtunidades Programme she found that many people felt the problems with the programme would have been eliminated by allowing them to have a role in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of the scheme. For instance, the well intentioned community work element of the programme has led to the ostracising and humiliation of some beneficiaries from the local community because culturally it is seen as demeaning. Perhaps if local women who are privy to this kind of knowledge had been involved in the planning stages, this kind of disillusionment would have been avoided or minimised (Molyneux, 2006). One beneficiary said “The government says it is helping me, but the only thing it is giving me is a lot of work!” (Molyneux, 2006, pp. 437).

These problems could be combated by employing PRA techniques such as ranking in poor Latin American communities to hear from the people who are living in deprivation themselves where the money should go and how the problem should be solved (World Bank, 2008). However, as Helwege points out there are several cultural problems which would need to be overcome, such as the “muted vocabulary” of women in many Latin American communities (Helwege, 1995, pp.500)

Shift of Focus to Broader Reforms for Even Growth

Research on ways to redefine poverty in a way that is going to encourage more effective targeted policies is important. However, what is even more vital in Latin America, is the restructuring of institutions and welfare provisions to provide social security and the opportunity for a better life to everyone in the region, whatever their income. So far, Cuba is the only Latin American nation to have developed an all-inclusive welfare system. Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica, all have versions of a welfare state, but they are not comprehensive (Molyneux, 2006, pp. 426). This lack combined with the rapid, uneven economic growth the region has been experiencing since the 1970s play a huge part in the causes of poverty.

In order to combat this aspect of the problem, a holistic approach needs to be adopted, improving inclusiveness in all institutions as well as those which are confined to the poorest. Anti-poverty schemes are of no significance whatsoever if the wider economy and social systems in the country do not complement them. For example, educational programmes rely on the labour market to then produce jobs for any hope of having a long term effect on deprivation. If there is discrimination or a lack of opportunity within the labour market, educational supplements or conditions of cash transfers are arbitrary.

Haagh argues that approaches to poverty in Latin America have been negatively shaped by the fact that neither state nor society are “independently consolidated, financially secure, or politically stable”. (Haagh, 2006, pp.344). Governments are vulnerable to being swayed by excessive lobbying and participation from particular social groups reacting to a crisis, or sectional minority interest rather than the need for real, wide reaching change. The response is often an offering of short term, poorly planned funding offered to certain specific groups who deem themselves to be exposed to poverty and social hazard; for example the Metal Work Unions in Sao Paulo, Brazil (Haagh, 2006). She argues that these measures will have little lasting effect on the distribution of prosperity across the region. As an alternative, Louise Haagh cites the examples of East Asian economies which complemented their own rapid development with more comprehensive and wide reaching social security for all, such as South Korea. She states “Only stable and universal policies can provide proper security” (Haagh, 2006, pp.347).

“CCTs are but one instrument in what needs to be a comprehensive approach to social protection” (Rawlings, 2004, pp. 16).


The negative conclusions drawn by organisations such as the International Poverty Centre about monetary definitions of poverty, have shown that a high level of precision does not signify a high level of understanding. In response to this, new combined and profiling measures have given rise to a new breed of anti-poverty policy targeting non-income measures, principally education. These have been moderately successful in improving human capital, and increasing access to the basic public services of medical dispensaries, health centres, and schools.

However, programmes like Oppurtunidades are neglecting both the particularly micro, and particularly macro causes of deprivation. On a micro level, the impact of psychological damage to excluded children, and the complex livelihood strategies (Chambers, 1998) that might be in place are neglected by a definition which is determined that the provision of health and education will be enough. On a macro level, most nations in Latin America, including Mexico and Brazil, have yet to make the appropriate structural, broad based institutional changes which would begin to fix problems like societally engrained gender inequalities, and disparities between urban and rural poverty.

In order for social policy to tackle these problems, a new, more holistic approach to defining poverty must be adopted from the top. It must include Sen’s theory of capabilities which can accommodate the differences in types of poverty across the region; a new methodology which allows the poor themselves to accurately identify the problems as they see them; and recognition of the need for broader reform of public services and institutions.


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Written by: Amy Cumming
Written at: University of ork
Written for: Dr Louise Haagh
Date written: 2008

Can Schools Make Any Difference?

By Fernando Reimers

More Latin Americans are living in poverty than twenty years ago, despite the region's economic growth. The poor generally are still illiterate or barely literate. What is worse is that their children have limited opportunities to learn. They do not get a chance to move out of poverty by acquiring skills and knowledge, although about nine out of every ten children in the region enrolls in first grade.

The dynamics of education in Latin America are a critical link in the intergenerational transfer of poverty. Equality of educational, and social, opportunity is central at this time in the history of Latin America because it will contribute to the perceived legitimacy of democratically elected regimes and their policy choices. Democratic consolidation requires a broad based understanding that the life chances of all citizens are a function of merit and ability.

There is a documented association between poverty and educational attainment in Latin America. The poor are those with lower levels of education. Because they have disproportionately more children most children in Latin America are poor. Although most poor children enter first grade, they enroll in schools of lower quality, and are more likely to drop out after completing a few grades. In order to reduce poverty in Latin America, we must first understand the simultaneous processes of how education reproduces poverty and how education fosters opportunities to learn and for social mobility for the poor.

At least one in three people in Latin America now lives in poverty. Thirty six percent of the population lives on less than US$2 per day at 1985 prices. For the structurally poor, it seems, prosperity has not trickled down during the last ten years. Countries achieving significant economic growth during the last ten years have not reduced the incidence of poverty. In Argentina, for example, economic growth more than doubled per capita income and led to increases in real salaries and to the creation of thousands of jobs. Yet, unemployment in that country has also doubled and about a quarter of the population has lived with unmet basic needs since 1991. The percentage living below the poverty line in Latin America has stagnated since 1980, according to World Bank studies. The percentage had declined significantly from 60% in 1950 to 35% in 1980

Educational opportunities are the key to provide Latin American citizens access to knowledge, to the opportunity to participate in the creation of wealth and to the opportunity to prosper. As the economy becomes more global and knowledge-based, those with the greatest access to knowledge will benefit the most from the opportunities resulting from the integration into the world economy.

In Latin America, the sharp inequalities in the distribution of income reflect themselves in equally sharp inequalities in the distribution of access to knowledge and skills. Some children participate and succeed in schooling, acquiring basic cognitive skills, world views and social experiences. Their education enables them to go on learning, to work productively and to participate socially and politically. The children of the poor have more limited educational opportunities, leading to school failure and a lack of opportunity to acquire the same cognitive skills, to partake in the views and social experiences associated with good schools. Many of them face very limited opportunities to participate in economies ever more integrated into the world economy.

A fair amount is already known about the relationship between education and poverty in Latin America. We know that the poor have lower levels of education and that income rises with educational level. In Latin America, 14% of adults 26 years and older cannot read or write at all. If we assume a sixth grade education is necessary to reach functional literacy and to acquire basic cognitive skills, the number of Latin Americans who are absolutely or functionally illiterate equals the number of people living in poverty.

Education and income are closely related. In Brazil, for instance, the poorest 40% of teenagers (ages 15-19) average four years of schooling, while their counterparts in the top 20% of income distribution have twice that average level of schooling. In Northeast Brazil the gap increases: the poorest 40% of fifteen- to nineteen-year-olds average only two years of schooling versus 5 years for the top 20%. In Haiti the poorest 40% of the youth average two years in school, while the wealthiest 20 % averages six years. In Guatemala the gap between these groups is 2 versus 6 years of schooling on average.

Indigenous Latin Americans suffer even more from lack of schooling. For instance, in Bolivia's urban areas, the average non-indigenous person goes to school for ten years, Spanish-speaking indigenous people average six years of schooling, and those who do not speak Spanish have an average of 0.4 years of schooling.

The lower levels of educational participation and attainment among the poor in Latin America are a paradox in a region with legislation that mandates universal free primary education. We can understand this paradox if we think of educational opportunity as a series of steps in a ladder.

The most basic level of this ladder is the opportunity to enroll in first grade, an opportunity now enjoyed by the great majority, but not all, of Latin America's poor children.

Considerable progress has been made in expanding access. In the last 50 years, the number of students at all levels in Latin America increased from 32 million in 1960 to 114 million in 1990. Only three out of every five children were enrolled in first grade in the early 1960s, but today 95% of nine-year-olds are enrolled in school. Enrollment rates since 1960 increased from 60% to 88% at the primary level, from 36% to 72% at the secondary level and from 6% to 27% at the tertiary level. These increased opportunities to enroll in school demonstrate a remarkable expansion of the education system and great efforts in building schools and hiring and training teachers, especially when one takes into account the burgeoning population.

It is generally between the first and second level of the ladder of educational opportunity that the poor fall behind in today's Latin America. One out of every three children who enroll in first grade fail just as they are beginning school. Many of the poor have no preschool education whatsoever, and many teachers serving poor children have not been prepared to address their particular needs. For instance, many indigenous children are taught in a language and with materials they don't understand. Grade repetition is disproportionately higher among the poor. Research shows that repetition leads to more repetition and eventually to school dropouts.

The third stage of educational opportunity gives students a chance to complete the first cycle of education, to achieve functional literacy, to do simple math, to establish cause-effect relationships, and to have basic information about science, history, social studies. Most of the children of the poor do not complete this cycle. One reason is that parents of children who must repeat grades find it increasingly impossible to continue supporting their studies. High repetition rates mean children only reach an average of fourth grade, even if they are staying in school longer.

The next level of opportunity means students in the same grade will learn comparable skills and knowledge. However, most students in Latin America don't get this chance because schools are very segregated by family income and sometimes ethnicity. In general, students from low income families have the lowest scores in standardized tests.

The highest level of opportunity provides equal economic and social opportunities to students with equal skills. Thus, graduates of a given educational cycle will have the same options in life. This level of opportunity does not exist in Latin America. Studies have shown that indigenous workers, and especially women, have the same educational achievement and work experience as their mestizo counterparts, they generally still earn less money. It is not apparent that Latin American societies and labor markets have meritocratic systems to provide access to social and economic opportunities.

While Latin America has made much progress in advancing the first level of educational opportunity, many interlocking reasons prevent equality from being obtained at all levels of educational opportunity.

The first is poverty itself. The children of the poor have poorer health and nutrition; they have less time to spend on school activities and less support for homework, and they tend to be absent more from school because of poor health, family and economic needs. Thus, poverty perpetuates poverty.

Since poor children have very limited opportunities to quality pre-school, they are less ready for school when they actually do begin. The type of schooling they are offered is often not equal to that provided to better-off children. The schools and teachers are often of lower quality; there is less access to instructional materials and less time devoted to teaching.

Above all, there is a lack of compensatory policies, of positive discrimination, which would enable teachers to work effectively with disadvantaged children and which would provide them with instructional materials geared to their needs.

The impact of these factors is cumulative and compounded over time, as children reach higher levels of education. Low quality or no access to pre-school education makes it difficult for poor children to benefit equally from primary education; the resulting low quality of learning at the primary level makes it difficult to benefit equally from secondary education, and so on. As can be expected, very few disadvantaged children reach higher levels of education. In El Salvador, for example, only seven percent of the university students come from the poorest 40% of the households, while 57% come from the richest 20% of the households. As Latin American economies become more competitive a quality higher education becomes more important. The fact that most higher education graduates come from higher income groups leads to the consolidation of inequalities and lack of social mobility in Latin America.


The good news: the great potential of poor children and the difference schools can make

Although the children of the poor generally have on average lower levels of academic achievement than their non-poor counterparts, I have found in Colombia and Mexico that there is overlap in levels of achievement between the poor and non-poor. Some disadvantaged children have comparable levels of academic performance than children in significantly more advantageous conditions. For example, in Mexico's four poorest states, I have observed that some children attending indigenous and small community primary schools have levels of achievement higher than most of their urban counterparts in standardized mathematics and Spanish tests. This demonstrates that poor children are capable of the same levels of performance as their non-poor counterparts. I have found the same overlap in the levels of academic achievement among secondary school students in rural and urban areas in Colombia. Variations in student achievement can be explained by differences between schools and by differences between children. The data from Mexico show that poorer the child, the more important the quality of the school in explaining the differences in academic achievement. This finding is consistent with research in the United States and other OECD countries, but it is especially significant because it signals the potential of schools to further opportunity for the poor to learn.

Several Latin American governments are implementing policies to foster educational opportunities for poor children. These programs include affordable access to pre-school in disadvantaged communities, improvement of educational quality in rural areas, and improvement of the quality of education in selected schools attended by disadvantaged children in urban and rural areas. Several years ago, for example, Chile started a program to improve the quality of rural schools and to proactively compensate by upgrading schools attended by the poorest children. Mexico has several programs to selectively increase the quality of education of the schools in its poorest states and those attended by the poorest children. There is much yet to learn about the effects of these interventions, although they signal the possibility to implement compensatory and positive discrimination policies.

Turning around the vicious cycle of poverty reproducing itself through the education system requires that we better understand and change the conditions that give opportunities to learn to the children born in low-income homes. We must look at the experience of Latin America and other regions to evaluate the results of policies to provide the children of the poor real opportunities to learn and to experience social mobility. The Summit of the Americas last year prioritized education as an avenue of poverty alleviation. Achieving this goal will require education reforms which actually implement these policy aspirations. Only then will it become possible for every citizen in the region, including the 168,787,800 people-most of them children-now living on less than $2 a day, to benefit from the remarkable economic, social and political achievements made by Latin America during the twentieth century.

Fernando Reimers is an Associate Professor at the Harvard School of Education and Director of the new masters program in international education policy. He obtained his masters and doctorate in education policy at Harvard and his Licenciatura at the Universidad Central de Venezuela where he lectured 16 years ago. Prior to joining the Harvard faculty he served as senior education specialist at the World Bank and as an advisor to several governments in Latin America on issues of education reform. He is currently conducting research on the links between education and poverty in Latin America.


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