Mexico's Fragile Middle Class by ProQuest


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With the right policies, the
Mexican government can
protect the middle class and
overcome intergenerational
poverty—despite the crisis.
Florencia Torche

Can Latin American governments tack-                    colonial history and institutions, but a major driver
le inequality in the midst of the global economic       of today’s income gap is the uneven access to pub-
downturn? Although some countries—most nota-            lic goods such as education. Unequal access to edu-
bly Brazil and Chile—have made dramatic gains in        cation and other productive assets is not only the
reducing poverty and expanding the middle class,        source of wide economic disparities, but it also pre-
Latin America remains, in the first decade of the       vents intergenerational mobility.
twenty-first century, one of the world’s most unequal       Examining the case of Mexico can help us find
regions. Inequality has deep roots in the region’s      ways to understand this phenomenon. The gap

76  americas quarterly   s p r i n g   2009                                             a m e r i c a s q u a r t e r ly . o r g
                        between the rich and the poor in Mexico has remained             Intergenerational mobility captures the extent
                        largely unchanged over the past two decades. Recent          to which an individual’s socioeconomic position
                        studies about intergenerational mobility indicate that       depends on social background. In an immobile soci-
AP Photo/Miguel tovAr

                        public support for education, especially for the most        ety, “accidents of birth” strongly determine individ-
                        needy, is the key to providing equal opportunity. The        ual attainment. In a mobile society, by contrast, the
                        lesson is applicable to the entire region, particularly if   opportunity for economic success (and failure) will be
                        it is to shore up and defend the social gains of the last    more equally distributed across individuals of differ-
                        decade in the midst of an economic crisis.                   ent social backgrounds. As such, mobility provides a

                        a m e r i c a s q u a r t e r ly . o r g                                         spring 2009   americas quarterly   77
measure of equality of opportunity across countries.        status is 60 percent, and the chance of remaining in
    Even though mobility and inequality are correlat-       the top two quintiles is a solid 85 percent. In other
ed—higher levels of inequality mean that parental           words, if you’re born wealthy in Mexico, you’re like-
resources weigh more on individual attainment—              ly to stay there. If you’re born poor (the two lowest
mobility matters in and of itself for at least three rea-   quintiles) you’re about 74 percent likely to remain
sons. The first of these is normative. A society that       there too.
fails to value equal opportunity and merit over social          Is the Mexican level of intergenerational immobil-
background and economic status is simply unjust.            ity unusual? For the purposes of comparison I look
Social mobility also matters from an efficiency per-        at Chile, which has comparable levels of economic
spective. A social and economic system that does            development and inequality, and Sweden, known for
not reward individual merit wastes its most precious        its high mobility.
resource: human cap
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