How Sustainable are Latin America’s Advances on Poverty and Inequality?

By Eric Hershberg

Brazil Contrasts

“Projeto Contrastes.” Photo Credit: Gabriela Sakamoto / Flickr / Creative Commons

The significant decline in poverty rates and income inequality in Latin America over the past two decades – driven by a combination of sustained economic growth and intelligently designed social policies – may slow or even be reversed as economic conditions deteriorate across much of the region.  Poverty had begun to drop in most countries even before the commodity boom accelerated growth rates in South America beginning around 2003.  The “Washington Consensus” policies of the 1990s impacted wage income and employment negatively, but other factors diminished their impact on poverty.  By overcoming profound macro-economic instability, which among other things produced hyperinflation that devastated disadvantaged sectors of the population, the economic adjustments of that period were not entirely regressive.  Moreover, a concurrent shift toward targeted social programs – which redirected subsidies away from less vulnerable segments of the population in order to protect the poorest of the poor.  By 2002, the number of people living on less than $1.90 a day had declined 4.6 per cent from where it had been at the beginning of the 1990s, according to the World Bank, while the number living on less than $3.10 stayed flat and actually rose (from 135.6 million to 138.1 million).  Performance varied across countries.  By 2012, after a strong decade of growth and a wave of progressive governments, the progress was much more impressive, with poverty dropping to 33.7 million ($1.90/day) and 72.2 million ($3.10/day).

Inequality declined also – a different challenge in the region that Kelly Hoffman and Miguel Centeno aptly labeled the “lopsided continent.”  Measured by GINI coefficients, income inequality in Latin America, which exceeded that of any other world region at the beginning of the century, grew less pronounced under governments of various ideological proclivities.  A substantial body of research shows that this was a product of two factors.

  • Investments in primary and secondary education, which accelerated during the neo-liberal years, meant lower wage premiums for those with more than basic skills: near universal attendance in secondary school reduced the significance of gaps between workers who had secondary education and those who had little schooling.
  • Innovative social policies – particularly conditional cash transfers – meant that the lower rungs of the income ladder received meaningful transfers from the state, enabling them to narrow the income gaps vis-à-vis less disadvantaged sectors. Less frequently acknowledged was the positive impact of reforms on minimum wage policies and the creation or expansion of non-contributory pensions, both of which were pushed aggressively by several governments associated with the “Left Turns.”  Non-contributory pensions were especially important since the most vulnerable of Latin American aged populations, having spent their working years toiling in the informal sector, had previously lacked any sort of retirement pension.  (Read further analysis of pension reform.)

The region’s slowdown in economic growth and the pressure on public finance brought about by the end of the commodity boom – and the infusion of cash into state coffers that it afforded – raise questions about the sustainability of these advances.  The benefits of investments in education will endure for some time.  Even if education budgets decline, the costs in terms of lower educational achievement would take years to become evident, and it is not at all certain that the funding will decline.  However, the social programs are much more vulnerable, as are the ambitious efforts to increase minimum wages and labor protections more broadly.  Should the economic contraction underway in some countries and on the horizon in others generate an increase in informality, the labor market achievements of recent years could be quickly eroded.   This would impact inequality, and it might soon exacerbate poverty as well.

June 3, 2016

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