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People, Social Issues

CEPAL, Mexican cities, daily income, social divisions, World Bank report

Mexico is characterized by sharp class and social divisions. A small upper class controls much of the country’s property and wealth while the majority of Mexicans live in poverty. In 1989 the top 20 percent of Mexico’s income earners received 57 percent of the national income. The poorest 20 percent received only four percent of the national income, while the middle 60 percent earned the remaining 37 percent. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), only six countries outside of Africa have a more unbalanced income distribution than Mexico.

Compared to the United States, Mexico’s middle class is relatively small, making up a little more than one-third of the population. Many middle-class Mexicans have lifestyles similar to those of middle-class families in the United States—living in homes or apartments with modern amenities such as electricity and running water, owning one or more automobiles, and having access to educational and health-care facilities.

Most Mexicans, however, live in varying degrees of poverty. Although the Mexican government does not issue official poverty figures, several national and international organizations have issued studies that attempt to paint a picture of the extent of poverty in Mexico. Many of these organizations use a “Basic Basket of Foodstuffs” to determine whether families are able to satisfy their minimum needs for nutrition, housing, clothing, and health care. This basket of goods and services is given a monetary value and those households whose daily income is not enough to afford this basket are said to be living in “extreme poverty.” Those households whose daily income is more than the value of the basic basket, but not greater than twice the value, are said to be living in “poverty.” A 1996 study by Mexico’s National Autonomous University put the value of this basket at U.S.$5.39 a day and said that 51 percent of Mexican families could not afford this basket and were therefore living in “extreme poverty.” This was up from 32 percent in 1993 and 16 percent in 1989. A World Bank report, also from 1996, said that one-fourth of Mexicans earned less than U.S.$2 a day and that 17 percent of Mexicans earned less than U.S.$1 a day.

Mexico’s recent economic problems have hurt middle- and lower-income families much more than they have hurt wealthy families. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mexico’s highest income groups increased their overall wealth, while the earnings of poor Mexicans declined significantly. For lower- and middle-income families, this often meant that they had to reduce their already limited spending on food and other basic necessities.

Many poor Mexicans have little or no access to health care and live in housing that lacks one or more basic amenities such as electricity, running water, or sewerage. Although the quality of housing has improved considerably since 1970, in the mid-1990s approximately 12 percent of Mexican households remained without electricity, 11 percent lacked running water, and 26 percent were without sewer facilities. Many children also suffer from malnutrition and drop out of school early in order to begin earning money for their families.

In addition, Mexico’s rapid population growth has severely strained government services, especially education and health care. This growing population has placed tremendous pressure on the government and economy to create new jobs. The economy in the 1980s and 1990s has not been able to create enough jobs to keep up with population growth. Economic conditions have prompted thousands of skilled and unskilled workers to migrate north to the United States in search of employment.

Mexican cities suffer from many of the same social problems found in urban environments around the world. Poor economic conditions, however, have significantly increased the levels of urban crime in the country, especially in Mexico City. Drug abuse and juvenile crime have also increased in major cities in recent years.

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