Can 80 Percent of Mexicans be Poor? The Debate over Poverty

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Apartment buildings stand behind a low-income neighborhood in Mexico City (Edgard Garrido/Courtesy Reuters).

Apartment buildings stand behind a low-income neighborhood in Mexico City (Edgard Garrido/Courtesy Reuters).

A recent study highlighted in La Jornada, a Mexican newspaper, claims that some ninety million Mexicans are poor, roughly 80 percent of the total population. This contrasts drastically with calculations by the OECD (which put the poor closer to twenty-three million) or those by Mexican researchers Luis de la Calle and Luis Rubio (who estimate that 25 percent of Mexicans—approximately twenty-nine million—are poor).

So how should we define who is and isn’t poor? The World Bank includes everyone that earns more than two dollars a day; an expansive view that likely rings false for those scraping by just above this bare minimum. The OECD’s measurement is relative by country, based on the median household income. CONEVAL, a Mexican governmental  organization that conducts the country’s official poverty measurements, takes a multi-dimensional approach, with income considered alongside access to healthcare, education, social security, housing, and food. By this comprehensive measure, some fifty-two million Mexicans are poor.

The study profiled in La Jornada takes these poor, and adds the next CONEVAL category—those vulnerable to becoming poor (nearly another forty million)—to get to the total number of ninety million. Vulnerable, according to CONEVAL, means lacking access to one or more social services or having an income close to the poverty line.

Given CONEVAL’s methodology, it’s almost impossible to compare to other countries. But taking just one indicator—healthcare—the difference between poor and vulnerable in the United States is at least illustrative. Fifteen percent of the U.S. population is poor (roughly 47 million). Another 43 percent are one health emergency away from poverty—e.g., some 130 million are “vulnerable to poverty.” This suggests that 60 percent of Americans—or almost 180 million—are “poor” if we are using a more comprehensive definition of poverty, such as the one cited by La Jornada.

Calculations such as these are useful in any country, to show who and how people are vulnerable. But it is also important to see the differences, between the twenty plus million abjectly poor Mexicans, the thirty million more moderately poor, and the nearly forty million who aren’t, but whose hold on a more middle class life is tenuous. The distinctions matter especially for policymakers trying to design initiatives to support these different groups, helping all to gain valuable economic ground.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.