Social Mobility in Mexico

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A girl from the "Insurgentes de la Paz" (Peace Insurgents) school hangs up her school bag near an old bus turned into her classroom in the settlement of Pueblo Nuevo, Oaxaca (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

A girl from the “Insurgentes de la Paz” (Peace Insurgents) school hangs up her school bag near an old bus turned into her classroom in the settlement of Pueblo Nuevo, Oaxaca (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

One of the biggest criticisms leveled at Mexico is the lack of social mobility. A new report published by Mexico City’s Centro de Estudios Espinosa Yglesias (CEEY) takes a look at just how mobile (and immobile) Mexican society really is—revealing that there are both reasons for worry and for cautious optimism. On the bright side, there is a significant amount of mobility in Mexico’s middle three economic quartiles. In contrast, few of the richest and the poorest leave their origins behind (with a full 50 percent staying put on each end of the economic ladder).

So what matters? Education seems to be vital. Here family is paramount, both in terms of expectations and resources, leaving many stuck on the bottom rungs. This is particularly for advanced degrees, where educated parents are more likely to push their children to follow them off to college and beyond. And their children, the report shows, generally live up to these expectations.

The study also shows that attending private elementary schools matters. Here perhaps the news is getting better, and though Mexico has not yet fixed its weak public school system, private school education has expanded. Mexico now boasts some 45,000 private schools—roughly one third of all educational institutes. And while many question the quality of some of these establishments, kids attending private elementary schools were much more likely to complete their studies and attend college.

The study also shows big differences between men and women, with women being more mobile than men—for good and for bad. Still, where you come from influences expectations and outcomes, with upper class women working (and earning) more than their poorer counterparts. Parental education also plays a role. For women whose parents were well educated, roughly two-thirds were employed, compared to 44 percent whose parents had not completed primary school.

In international comparisons, Mexico falls far behind industrialized countries, such as those in the European Union. But studies are more mixed when comparing Mexico to its Latin American neighbors (depending on which measuring methods were used and during which time periods). A 2013 World Bank report found Mexico to have one of the lowest proportions of upwardly-moving social “climbers” in Latin America, but other studies that instead track individuals over several periods of time rank Mexico’s mobility at the top of the region. And a 2012 study by the Universidad de los Andes found that while overall levels of mobility were higher in Chile, intergenerational mobility was progressing much faster in Mexico than in either Chile or Colombia.

Social mobility matters not just for individuals and families but also for the broader economy. As a 2010 OECD report puts it, countries with lower levels of social mobility are more likely to “misallocate human skills and talents.” This diminishes motivation, productivity, innovation, and, in the aggregate, economic growth. So what can Mexico do? Following through and pushing further the recent education reforms, so that the vast disparity between public and private schools diminishes, is a start. The report too calls for affirmative action programs for women in schools and workplaces and for expanding the number of secondary schools and colleges. Other reforms to reduce the size of the informal sector, and to spread access to financing so that those with good ideas or companies can begin or expand their operations will also help, ensuring that the talented, motivated, and hard-working get a chance to rise.

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