Volume 44, Number 174,
July-September 2013
Setbacks and Challenges for Social Policy in Mexico
José Narro Robles,* David Moctezuma Narro**
and Diego de la Fuente Stevens***
Date submitted: Date received: April 20, 2013. Date accepted: June 5, 2013

Programs and strategies to fight poverty, inequality and social marginalization have had a variety of approaches and scopes, particularly since 1970. However, official figures on extreme poverty indicate that social development policies and programs oriented towards overcoming poverty have been unable to reverse growth in this area. It is time to review and adjust social policy in the framework of a new economic growth strategy focused on social equality. Although important, Mexico cannot make its sole priority the maintenance of macroeconomic balance. Rather, collective welfare and social stability within the country must take precedence. Consequently, fiscal equilibrium must not take priority over social imbalances. In other words, there is an urgent need for a development model oriented towards social and human aspects to generate economic growth, reduce inequalities and foster social cohesion. This is our challenge.

Keywords: poverty, inequality, social policy, programs to combat poverty, social development.

“Mexico is the country of inequality. Nowhere does there exist such a fearful difference in the distribution of fortune, civilization, cultivation of the soil and population.” Alejandro de Humboldt wrote this in his Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain (2002: 68-69, 1st ed. 1811), adding:

The capital and several other cities have scientific establishments which will bear a comparison with those of Europe. The architecture of the public and private edifices, the elegance of the furniture, the equipages, the luxury and dress of the women, the tone of society, all announce a refinement t which the nakedness, ignorance and vulgarity of the lower people form the most striking contrast. This immense inequality of fortune does not only exist among the caste of whites, it is even discoverable among the Indians.

Morelos’ forceful call at the beginning of the nineteenth century, in Feelings of the Nation, to temper the excesses of indigence and opulence is therefore unsurprising.

It is clear that inequality in Mexico is a longstanding historical structural problem, which centuries of efforts have been unable to resolve. Major national transformations and progress on all orders, including in the political realm, have failed to overcome the severe social inequality present in Mexico, manifest in the marginalization, exclusion and poverty of millions of Mexicans. Public policies that have been implemented to combat poverty, at least during the time period ranging from the Mexican Revolution to present day, have also failed to resolve this major issue.

Inequality and poverty go hand in hand, but are not the same. The concept of economic inequality, which gives rise to social inequality, refers to the way in which wealth and national income are distributed among diverse sectors of the population. Poverty, on the other hand, represents a lack of sufficient income, goods and services and can also include the extreme of being unable to obtain the necessary food for survival.

In Mexico, there are currently 50 million people classified in the area of income poverty.1 Of them, according to some estimates, 13 million live in conditions of extreme poverty (Reforma, 2013: 6), marked by high levels of malnutrition that may even lead to death. Although it may seem hard to believe, according to mortality figures, 8,699 Mexicans perished in 2010 as a result of malnutrition, and in many of these cases, extreme poverty was the root cause. Over the past ten years, the figure has not changed substantially, and as such it is likely that over 85,000 deaths over the first decade of this century were attributable to malnutrition.

On the world stage, Mexico ranks 108 in inequality among 134 nations as measured by the Gini index. By this classification, Mexico is merely 26 places away from the most unequal nation in the world, which is Haiti, and 107 spots away from Sweden, with the lowest inequality in income distribution (pnud, 2010). According to the oecd, in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available to make comparisons, Mexico ranks as the second most unequal country, only following Chile (oecd, 2011).

We are without a doubt one of the most unequal nations on the planet, although not one of the most poor. In Mexico the two extremes of wealth and poverty exist painfully alongside each other. Solving this age-old issue will require accepting that Mexico must produce more wealth, but even more importantly, distribute it more fairly and eliminate extreme poverty.

*   Rector of the unam and professor in the unam faculties of Medicine and Chemistry. E-mail: rectoria@unam.mx;

**    Researcher at the Regional Center for Multidisciplinary Research, unam. E-mail: davidmn@unam.mx;;

***  Advisor to the Rector of the unam. E-mail: ddelafs@gmail.com

1In estimating poverty, Coneval takes into account eight factors, and income is only one of them: lack of education, access to health services, access to social security, living spaces and quality, basic housing services, access to food and level of social cohesion. When all of these are considered together, the number of poor people is 53 million. See the Coneval press release from June 29, 2011.

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Published in Mexico, 2012-2018 © D.R. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).
PROBLEMAS DEL DESARROLLO. REVISTA LATINOAMERICANA DE ECONOMÍA, Volume 49, Number 194 July-September 2018 is a quarterly publication by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Ciudad Universitaria, Coyoacán, CP 04510, México, D.F. by Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas, Circuito Mario de la Cueva, Ciudad Universitaria, Coyoacán,
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