Poverty in Latin America

Back in August, the BBC reported that poverty was making a sharp decline in Latin America. It reported that from 2000 to 2012, the poverty rate fell from 41.7 percent to 25.3 percent.

In countries like Paraguay and Brazil, this decline in poverty has come through the mass production and export of cash crops like soybeans and sugar cane. Spiking beef prices allowed Argentina and Brazil to export large amounts of beef to countries around the globe. These activities helped build a stronger middle class, opening up new opportunities and jobs for those who were living in poverty.

The newly elected president of El Salvador, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, spoke about the decline of poverty rates in his country last month at the United Nations. He talked about the social programs previous Salvadoran administrations implemented, such as pensions for the elderly, financial help for single mothers and nutrition programs for students. These programs helped bring down extreme poverty levels to 13.6 percent in El Salvador.


Building a middle class in Brazil. Image Source: World Bank Photo Collection.

Mexico and Brazil have also used social programs to fight poverty in their countries. In Brazil, a program called Bolsa Familia transfers money directly to families living in poverty, with the understanding that their children have to attend school and get frequent health checkups and that their mothers have to attend classes. Similar programs in Mexico have helped hundreds of thousands of families get out of poverty.

All of these advances in Latin America are good to see – especially since 25 to 30 years ago, most Latin American countries were in the midst of numerous civil wars that destroyed many economies. Some Latin American governments were ruled by military dictatorships that allowed cronyism and corruption to further devastate economies. Needless to say, back then, helping people get out of poverty was not the first priority for these governments.

Then in the 1970s and 1980s, leftist leaders who promised to fight poverty and indifference won a wave of elections, only to be toppled by CIA-backed coup d’états, another casualty of the Cold War brewing between the United States and the USSR.

Now, a new electoral trend has emerged in Latin America over the past 15 years. Once the civil wars and military dictatorships ended, these new emerging democracies elected new presidents and legislatures. New populist leaders promised to fight poverty and inequality in their countries once again. But this time, without having to worry about a coup, new leaders have had the time to concentrate on keeping their promises.

Whether the focus has been on growing employment opportunities, funding new social programs or increasing exports, it’s great to see Latin America lifting itself out of poverty. Seniors are no longer starving to death, mothers are getting their basic needs met and children are receiving an education. There is still a lot more work to be done, but it is good to know that these new governments are working on helping their most vulnerable.