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Study Shows Latin American Poverty Follows Patterns
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Tuesday, September 14, 2010
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IQUITOS, Peru (CNS)—Cesar Mashingash Alban, a 23-year-old Wampis indigenous youth, was studying education at a local university until this semester, when his funds ran out and he had to return home to a tiny community several days away by river.}

A fellow student, 22-year-old Ferny Medina, was even farther from home—45 minutes on a prohibitively expensive small plane, or 23 days by river. Medina, a medical student, was also worried about money. The local government had suspended a dollar-a-day food subsidy for indigenous students, and the youths had run out of rice, cooking oil and other staples.

Struggling for an education after growing up in remote communities without electricity and with few school books or supplies, Mashingash and Medina face the double bind of poverty in Latin America: Indigenous people and rural dwellers are more likely to be poor than city dwellers and people of European descent. The problem is even more acute for women and children.

Even more insidiously, poverty is likely to pass from generation to generation in the same households, according to a new U.N. Development Program report on human development in Latin America and the Caribbean. If countries really want to break the cycle of poverty, experts say, they must change their policies to address internal inequalities.

In Guatemala, 49 percent of children under age 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition, a rate that rises to 59 percent among indigenous children, Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini Imeri of San Marcos told Catholic News Service.

"Indigenous people in Guatemala have always been the most excluded from social development in the country," he said. "That dates back to colonial times, when indigenous people were merely considered cheap labor. And the same is true today."

Despite economic growth during much of the past decade, distribution of per capita income in Latin America is nearly as inequitable now as it was 20 years ago. According to the index used to rank income distribution, Latin America is the most unequal region in the world, with an inequality index 18 percent higher than that of sub-Saharan Africa and 65 percent higher than the world's highest-income countries.

Within countries, poverty rates are higher among indigenous people, those of African descent, women and people in rural areas than those in cities and people of European descent.

In Ecuador, 60 percent of indigenous people live on less than a dollar a day, twice the poverty rate for non-indigenous Ecuadoreans. Only 9.3 percent of Panama's non-indigenous population is poor, but more than half of indigenous Panamanians and those of African descent live in poverty. Disparities are similarly high in countries such as Mexico, Bolivia, Guatemala, Paraguay, Brazil and Peru.

Guatemala has not made structural changes "that would create a society in which there is equality in access to the basic goods that people need—adequate housing; nutritious and abundant food; stable, decent and well-paid employment; access to health care," Bishop Ramazzini said. "We have huge deficits in health and education."
The U.N. study found that poverty tends to persist in households from one generation to the next, partly because a lack of education limits future employment opportunities.

Children whose parents have little formal education are less likely to complete a higher education and run the risk of perpetuating poverty.

In households where parents did not finish elementary school, 85.5 percent of the children finish primary school, but only 32.7 percent finish high school and 3.1 percent go on to college, the study found. If parents have not completed secondary school, slightly more than half their children finish high school, but only 6 percent get a college education.

In contrast, when parents have a college education, almost all their children finish high school and almost three-fourths finish college.

"It is possible to reduce inequality by breaking the vicious circle of inequality that is passed from generation to generation," said Rebecca Arias, UNDP representative in Peru, where the human development report was presented Sept. 9.

In poor urban neighborhoods, lack of jobs sometimes pushes women into illegal activities such as prostitution or the drug trade that can lead to prison time, said Heidi Cerneka, a Maryknoll lay missionary who works with prisoners in Sao Paulo.

"I think if we had something closer to equity, we wouldn't have as many people in our prisons," she said.

Once the women leave prison, it is even more difficult for them to find work, she said. While men with little formal education can find unskilled work in construction or other trades, women without job skills are often relegated to the informal economy, selling small items or working as domestic employees, Cerneka said.

"But you're more likely to hire a former inmate to repair your roof than to clean your house," she said.

Isidro Soloaga, a coordinator of the U.N. study, said most government policies promote economic growth but do not reduce inequality within countries, although several countries are distributing cash or vouchers to poor families who agree to keep their children in school and ensure they get health care.

Governments must not only increase social spending, he said, but target it better with policies that respond to underlying causes of inequality. Parents may send their children to work instead of to school, for example, because they do not believe an education "pays off." The challenge is to ensure that families see a tangible benefit to educating their children.

Poverty and inequality are linked to issues that affect the United States. High poverty rates in the mostly indigenous highlands of Peru have spurred an exodus of working-age adults to cities, leaving elderly people and children behind, Archbishop Pedro Barreto Jimeno of Huancayo told CNS.

And although illegal migration to the United States has decreased with the recent economic downturn, low-wage jobs in "El Norte" still pay more than unskilled work in most migrants' home countries.

Because of the cross-border links in poverty and inequality, Catholics in both Latin America and the United States should seek solutions, Bishop Ramazzini said.
He called for U.S. Catholics to work for immigration reform, just economic relationships with developing countries, and enforcement of free-trade agreement provisions protecting workers and the environment. They can also help monitor mining, petroleum, timber and other companies that extract natural resources from Latin American countries, he said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has also focused on those issues.
"Catholics throughout the world are supposed to live in solidarity with one another," said Father Juan Molina, the bishops' foreign policy adviser for Latin America and global trade.

Recent economic hardship might have brought that lesson home.

"People are realizing that poverty sometimes can sneak into a society if we are not careful about making sure that our laws and our governments take equitable distribution of resources seriously," he said.

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