Mexican poverty crisis: we must not suppress the voice of the people

Every year, the Mexican government ploughs more money into fighting poverty. Yet every year, poverty in Mexico increases.

In the past 17 years, the government has invested US$174.5 billion to help combat this problem, but new figures show that poverty now touches 46.1 per cent of the Mexican population.

This situation has developed from three separate crises: an ethical crisis in which individualism and consumption lead the agenda on poverty alleviation; a political crisis in which allegations of corruption are rife and power groups have aligned themselves with business self-interest; and a more general social crisis affecting the country.

Some of the consequences of these crises are unemployment and migration. Six per cent of the 22.2 million internal migrants in the country are displaced by violence and organised crime, while the US is home to 12 million Mexican migrants. Unemployment, meanwhile, has hit 2.3 million people – 4.3 per cent of the economically active population.

These figures demonstrate the immense reduction of salaries and increasing violence in the country, and thus the lack of opportunities for millions of people. This is in addition to the growing problems of poverty and inequality, which need to be tackled to achieve social justice.

Clearly, the current approach is ineffective and unsustainable. The Mexican government has previously relied on specific sets of policies, including the first-of-its-kind conditional cash transfer programme known as Prospera.

Prospera, which was developed in line with neoliberal thinking and recommendations from the IMF and World Bank, involves giving families conditional cash payments in exchange for co-operation with poverty-relieving measures such as regular school attendance for children and family visits to health clinics.

The scheme is designed to create ‘human capital’, enabling people to take part in the labour market. But the theoretical economic frameworks underpinning the scheme only serve to reduce people’s human needs to mere subsistence levels, obscuring the voices of the very people experiencing poverty and resulting in a system that does more harm than good – hence the rising levels of inequality in the country.

Prospera may have succeeded in creating more human capital, but it has fallen short of its goals of alleviating poverty and improving conditions for poor households across urban and rural Mexico.

Policy makers must move towards a system that defines poverty not simply in terms of subsistence, but in terms of human complexity. They need to abandon the current, orthodox economic approaches to relieving poverty and place the voices and experiences of Mexican people at the heart of the social policy agenda.

Only then will the situation begin to improve.

Gerardo J Arriaga, Doctoral Candidate in Social Policy, University of Birmingham