22 de Julio de 2018
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Colección: Trends for a common future
Autor: Bernardo Kliksberg
Título: The Social Situation of Latin America and Its Impact on the Family and Education

I. Crucial Social Questions

The evolution of the region’s social situation has generated deep concern in widespread sectors. Various international organizations, including the United Nations, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Organization of American States have drawn attention to the alarming indicators of social deficits. The Church’s highest authorities have repeatedly called for priority treatment of the serious problems experienced by large population groups. Likewise, citizens have found different ways to express that they feel their most serious problems are linked to social issues. Thus, when asked to rank said problems, a representative sample of 14 countries in the region and almost 15,000 people (LatinBarómetro 1998) indicated the following: unemployment (21%), compounded by job instability (6%), education (18%), low wages (8%), poverty (7%), corruption (7%). These are all social problems, and corrupt practices are to be added.

The general concern related to the social realm is based on concrete facts. This is how Ocampo (ECLAC, 1998) describes the overall situation:

“Absolute poverty levels continue to increase, there is no improvement in inequality levels and employment in the informal sector is on the rise”.

In fact, recent national estimates indicate that large sectors of the population find themselves below poverty levels in many countries. The report on the “Condition of the Region” (UNDP-European Union 1999) states that over 60% of the 34.6 million inhabitants of Central America live in poverty, and 40% in abject poverty. Figures show that 75% of Guatemalans, 73% of Hondurans, 68% of Nicaraguans, and 53% of Salvadorans find themselves below the poverty threshhold. Over 10 million inhabitants of Central America (29% of the total population) do not have access to health services, and 2 out of 5 are deprived of drinking water and basic sanitation conditions. A third of the population is illiterate. According to the report, the figures are worse for the indigenous population. In Guatemala, for instance, poverty is 86% among indigenous groups, and 54% of the non indigenous. In Ecuador, it is estimated that 62.5% of the population is below poverty levels. In Venezuela, poverty is officially estimated at 80% of the population. It is estimated (FUNDACRESA, 1999) that 10 million people (41.74% of the population) live in extreme poverty. In Brazil, an estimated 43.5% of the population earn less than 2 dollars per day, and 40 million live in absolute poverty. In Argentina, recent estimates (1999) show that 45% of the children younger than 14 live below the poverty level.1

The high levels of unemployment and informal employment in the region contribute considerably to the increase of poverty. According to Victor Tokman (1998), the average unemployment rate rose from 7.2 in 1984 to 8.4% in 1998, and is estimated, in 1999, at 9.5%. Further deterioration is caused by the increased percentage of members of the active labor force working in the informal economy sector, consisting largely of occupations lacking stability and sound economic backing, characterized by reduced productivity, low income and no social protection coverage. This trend toward informal activity, Tokman points out, leads to degrading the quality of existing jobs. In 1980, 40.6% of the non agricultural labor force worked in the informal economy, as compared to the current 59%. Precariousness is an additional element, as a growing number of workers do not have contracts, or hold temporary jobs. Some 35% of wage earners find themselves in this situation in Argentina, Colombia and Chile, and the figure is 74% for Peru.

One of the main concerns, with many implications, is the fact that younger population groups are hit hardest by these serious occupational difficulties, as illustrated on the following table (ECLAC 1996).


As shown, unemployment among the young in all the surveyed countries almost doubles the already high average unemployment rate. This constitutes a troublesome source of potential conflict. Furthermore, a marked gender bias is evident, as it is higher among young women as compared to young men.

Unemployment, underemployment and poverty are closely linked, and lead to all kinds of deprivations in daily life. One of their utmost expressions is the existence, in various countries, of alarming conditions of malnutrition. It is estimated that a third of Central American children under 5 years are below normal weight and height. In Nicaragua, for instance, Ministry of Health estimates (1999) show that 59% of families cover less than 70% of the minimum iron requirement, 28% of children under 5 suffer from anemia because of this low iron intake, 66 children out of every 100 have health problems due to Vitamin A deficiency and the daily caloric intake of 80% of the population is of only 1700 calories, instead of the minimum 2,125 required for normal nutrition. Malnutrition and other factors entail marked diffences in weight and height. In Venezuela, a 7 year old child from high income levels weighs an average 24,3 Kg and is 1, 219 m. tall. A child of the same age from low income levels weighs 20 Kg and is 1, 148 m. Malnutrition exists even in countries such as Argentina. It is estimated that one out of every five children from the most populated areas in the country, the Great Buenos Aires, suffers from that kind of problem. A report by the Panamerican Health Organization and ECLAC (1998), states the following on this issue:

An increase of chronic non transmissible diseases associated with eating habits and nutrition has been observed in almost every country of the region.

Malnutrition and other aspects of poverty entail pronounced lags in the development of poor children, marking their lives for good. Studies undertaken by UNICEF (1992), identified lags in psychomotor development in a sample of poor children starting at the age of 18 months. At five years, half of the children in the studied sample exhibited lags in language development, 40% in their overall development, and 30% in their visual and motor evolution.


In addition to poverty, the social situation in Latin America is characterized by marked inequities. Enrique V. Iglesias has stressed repeatedly that “poverty and inequity are the two major unresolved issues” in the region. Figures indicate that the region has become the continent with the highest degree of social polarity in the world. IDB’s Report on Economic and Social Progress (1998/99) provides the following figures in this regard:

As shown, the wealthiest 5% of the Latin American population receives 25% of total income. The proportion exceeds the income of the wealthiest 5% in other areas of the world. At the same time, it is the region where the poorest 30% of the population receives the smallest percentage of income (7.6%) as compared to all other continents, as can be seen on IDB’s following graph:


Also measured in terms of Gini’s coefficient, which expresses the level of inequality in income distribution of a given society, Latin America has the poorest rating in the world, as can be assessed by the following table:


The lower the Gini coefficient, the better the income distribution in a given society. Latin America’s coefficient exceeds by far those measured in the most equitable countries, and it is significantly higher than the world’s average.

The regressive impacts of the region’s marked social differences are felt in many areas, such as: reduced capacity for national savings, limitation of the domestic market, reduced productivity, various negative impacts on the educational system and on public health; they promote poverty and social exclusion, the erosion of domestic confidence and weaken democratic governance.

Inequity and poverty interact closely. Thus, the deepening of inequity has contributed considerably to the rise in poverty in the region, as illustrated by the studies conducted, among others, by Birdsall and Londoño (1997). Researchers have reconstructed the poverty curve that Latin America would have had if inequality levels would have remained during the 80s as they were in the early 70s, given the fact that even though they were already high, they increased even further.

The conclusions appear on Graph 3.

The solid line on the graph indicates the evolution of poverty in millions of poor between 1970 and 1995. The dotted line is an econometric simulation indicating the curve said evolution would have followed if the income distribution structure of the early 70s had been preserved. In that case, it is estimated that poverty would have been half of what it actually became. There is considerable “excess poverty” caused by the increase in inequality.

This paper is based on these worrisome realities and proposes to focus on two basic issues: the impact of poverty and inequity on the family, a fundamental structure of the social makeup, and the impact the forementioned developments have had on the educational systems in the region. Ultimately, the family and the educational system are the two main matrices in the shaping of human resources within any given society. Much of their quality is determined in those two realms, a quality that plays a decisive role in today’s world, in terms of technological progress, competitiveness and economic growth. On the other hand, and this is an essential distinction, human beings are not merely production instruments, and their overall development is the ultimate goal of organized societies. Family and education constitute areas determining the degrees of growth, balance, health, fullfilment and emotional wellbeing that people may achieve. Society and its members, therefore, play a major role given the conditions under which family and educational structures operate. This paper attempts to explore how poverty and inequity may affect them, through the limited review of some specific effects only. The issue has much greater scope, and this paper attempts to point out the pressing need to turn it into a subject of increased research.


The paper also aims at stressing the need for overall family strengthening policies at the national level, as well as of turning this issue into a significant area of international cooperation.

Efforts in both directions have been limited so far. At the national level, speeches make frequent reference to the relevant role of the family as one of the pillars of society, but very few consistent long term policies have been adopted in this regard. Thus, there are considerable gaps in this field, with few exceptions.

In the area of international cooperation, programs aiming at social objectives, including education, have increased considerably in recent years. However, very few systematically approach the problems related to the family as such, or offer an overall scheme to assist family units of large sectors of the region’s social fabric in facing the difficult challenges they come up against.

It seems that both nationally and internationally there is a very positive attitude and intention concerning support to the family, but there is a large gap between intentions and the design and implementation of substantive policies.

With the forementioned objectives in mind, that is to stress the need for in-depth research on the family, create an awarenes of the pressing need to design overall policies and to analyze the interactions between poverty, family and education, the paper deals with several areas of analysis. Some thoughts are expressed first on the relevant roles played by the family in modern societies, followed by a look at some of the effects of poverty and inequity on the family in Latin America, and some of the impacts of both on schools in the region.

Finally, conclusions are drawn, with the future in mind.