Latin American Studies Poverty in Latin America
Amos Megged
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0166


The theme of poverty in Latin America encompasses a whole range of problems that evolved throughout the centuries and provoked moral, social, economic, and political deliberations that can be traced back to Alfonso El Sabio and his famous siete partidas. A critical reading of the major theories that were proposed throughout the centuries should begin with an analysis of the historical division between “deserving” and “undeserving” poor in 16th-century Castile, which represented the first (negative) interpretation of the political potential of the marginalized. During the Early Modern period, with the increase of poverty, there emerged a distinction between “honest” and “dishonest” poor. A dishonest poor person was the one who was able to work but chose begging as an easier way to achieve his or her earnings. Honest poor were those classical poor: widows, orphans, prisoners, elders, and the sick. Along with this distinction emerged another distinction, actually a distinction between almsgiving and welfare. Ever since the beginning of the 20th century, the issue of poor people’s morality was treated from two differing approaches. On the one hand, the Roman Catholic Church acknowledged the need to defend and endorse the necessities of the poor without engaging in left-wing political agendas; however, during the 1970s militant priests endorsed liberation theology, and they actively participated as major players in the political and social struggles for human rights in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and Guatemala. On the other hand, the neoliberal doctrine had become dominant in both Latin American thought and practice. Accordingly, market exchange became an ethic of its own merit, capable of acting as a guide for all human action. In Latin America, the evolution of state intervention in welfare systems and the relegation of ever more initiatives to the quasi-private sector of nongovernmental organizations has largely to do with the political transfer from patrimonialist and undemocratic states into democracies. At the turn of the 20th century, as trade liberalization and labor market reform injured poorer wage earners, particularly in rural areas, massive anti–free market demonstrations surged in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, which challenged the consensus over neoliberal hegemony and drove local governments to more intervention in social and economic planning in society. Today’s “New Poverty” approach looks at the different social, economic, and political patterns involved according to a more structural approach than earlier on, and it emphasizes social exclusion of the poor in segmented enclaves and their severely hampered opportunities for social mobility. The most recent scholarship vehemently exposes one of modern Latin America’s paradoxes—that is, the existence of an enormous informal world outside of the law and institutions, and poor people’s interaction with it. Furthermore, as the most up-to-date studies in this field demonstrate, the resources-of-poverty survival model is no longer theoretically or empirically feasible in Latin America.

General Overviews

The ethnographic study of Mexico City’s urban poor (Lewis 1975), originally published in 1959, was pioneering in its era, highlighting the characteristics of “the culture of poverty” and the daily life of the urban poor, mainly urban slum dwellers, for whom poverty became an inescapable reality. Perlman 1976 and Lobo 1982 are both pioneering studies in the anthropology of poverty, focusing on the more than one million squatters of Rio de Janeiro. Perlman meticulously analyzed the life situation of the squatters, while Lobo concentrated on the role of the state in this evolution, the economic strategies of residents, and the values that urban squatters hold dear. Geremek’s powerful and impressive study (Geremek 1997), on the historical roots of poverty in general, traces the beginnings of welfare to the Early Modern period, when a distinction was first made between “honest” and “dishonest” poor. The issue of poverty is highly entangled with the public discourse on education, religious orthodoxy, hygiene, and family life, thereby establishing norms for “correct” social behavior and chastising the working poor’s “deviant” lifestyles. Since the 1960s, several constructive attempts have been made by authors to provide an overview of the study of poverty in Latin America as a field of its own merit. Since the 1990s, historians, economists, and other social scientists have endeavored to analyze the historical roots of Latin America’s high inequality and persistent poverty. Auyero 2001, for example, showed through the case study of Peronist Argentina how deeply embedded politics were vis-à-vis the poor. Fischer 2011, in yet another example, demonstrates how urban planning and regulatory law, labor and social welfare laws, criminal justice, and property rights all depend upon and are ultimately impacted by how society regards the poor. Henriques and Rands Barros 2000 brings to the fore a multiplicity of possible solutions for the sake of reducing inequality and eradicating poverty in contemporary Brazil. The authors’ approach is that poverty cannot be analyzed just from the political or economic perspective. Such a complex issue deserves scientific and social disciplines utilizing their methods, concepts, analysis techniques, and hypothesis to face, from various angles, the multiple edges that the relations among expectations, needs, and shortages represent in society. From the historical perspective, it is worth questioning poverty and the forms that social exclusion has adopted in the past. The more generalized studies begin by inquiring what “poverty” means in the different countries reviewed. Furthermore, such studies strive to identify the parameters that defined poverty and marginality, to recognize the factors that started and promoted impoverishment, and to detect the forms of assistance policies implemented by the dominant sectors of society. One of the finest among them is the edited volume González de la Rocha, et al. 2004. Klasen and Nowak-Lehmann D. 2009 exposes the diverse and multifaceted factors behind the high and persistent inequality in Latin America through a close study of the relationships between inequality and educational mobility in Brazil, the effect of social services and community infrastructures on living standards in rural Peru, the macroeconomic and distributional effects of devaluation in Bolivia, and the impact of the conditional cash-transfer program (the Oportunidades program) on youth in rural Mexico.

  • Auyero, Javier. Poor People’s Politics: Peronist Survival Networks and the Legacy of Evita. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.

    This book examines the relationship between politics and the destitute in Latin America, showing through the case study of Peronist Argentina how deeply embedded politics are in the lives of those who do not mobilize in the usual sense of the word but who are far from passive.

  • Diaz, Philippe, dir. The End of Poverty? 2008. DVD. Canoga Park, CA: Cinema Libre Studio, 2010.

    In this film, Diaz reveals that poverty is not accidental. It began with military conquest, slavery, and colonization that resulted in the seizure of land and other natural resources as well as in forced labor. Today, global poverty has reached new levels because of unfair debt, trade, and tax policies—in other words, wealthy countries exploiting the weaknesses of poor, developing countries.

  • Fischer, Brodwyn. A Poverty of Rights: Citizenship and Inequality in Twentieth-Century Rio de Janeiro. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011.

    Fisher examines the urban poor’s interactions with different legal realms. Urban planning and regulatory law, labor and social welfare laws, criminal justice, and property rights each had their own body of legislation and regulation, and, in keeping with Brazil’s civil law tradition, each enjoyed considerable autonomy from the rest.

  • Geremek, Bronislaw. Poverty: A History. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.

    Geremek’s powerful and impressive study on the historical roots of poverty in general traces the beginnings of welfare to the Early Modern period, when a distinction was first made between “honest” and “dishonest” poor, between almsgiving and welfare, and provides aid to the first in each of these categories.

  • González de la Rocha, Mercedes, Janice Perlman, Helen Safa, Elizabeth Jelin, Bryan R. Roberts, and Peter M. Ward. “From the Marginality of the 1960s to the ‘New Poverty’ of Today: A LARR Research Forum.” Latin American Research Review 39.1 (2004): 183–203.

    DOI: 10.1353/lar.2004.0021

    Leading authors reflect cross-generationally about how paradigms analyzing poverty in Latin American cities have shifted from the 1960s to the present. Specifically, each of the authors compares “marginality” as it was construed more than three decades ago with contemporary constructions of poverty and social organization arising from their more recent research.

  • Henriques, Ricardo, and Alexandre Rands Barros. Desigualdade e pobreza no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: IPEA, 2000.

    This collection of twenty-five essays, and the work of forty investigators coming from a large variety of fields, offers a bird’s-eye view on the analysis of the socioeconomic realities in Brazil and proposes some possible solutions that could be made in Brazil’s public policies, for the sake of reducing inequality and eradicating poverty.

  • Klasen, Stephan, and Felicitas Nowak-Lehmann D. Poverty, Inequality, and Policy in Latin America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.

    In this book, the multifaceted factors behind the high and persistent inequality in incomes, assets, and many aspects of well-being in Latin America are clearly explained. This volume is especially suitable for undergraduate as well as upper-level students of Latin American studies, economics, and sociology.

  • Lewis, Oscar. Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty. New York: Basic Books, 1975.

    Originally published in 1959, this classic study of five families in Mexico City introduces Oscar Lewis’s controversial thesis—that there existed a “culture of poverty” that characterized poor people, mainly urban slum dwellers, that made it unable for people raised in poverty to escape it.

  • Lobo, Susan. A House of My Own: Social Organization in the Squatter Settlements of Lima, Peru. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1982.

    The author’s great contribution is when she deals with the role of the state in this evolution, the economic strategies of residents, and the values that they hold dear. She describes how each squatter settlement is a community to itself, with the same type of boundedness that has been so well described in the highlands.

  • Milton, Cynthia. The Many Meanings of Poverty: Colonialism, Social Compacts and Assistance in Eighteenth-Century Ecuador. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007.

    Milton inquires as to how colonialism shaped arguments about poverty, such as the categories of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, in multiracial Quito in relationship to poverty as a social construct; the importance of gender, age, and ethno-racial categories; and the presence of the “social” and “economic” poor.

  • Perlman, Janice E. The Myth of Marginality: Urban Poverty and Politics in Rio de Janeiro. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

    Perlman’s book deconstructs the poverty and politics in Rio de Janeiro from the late 1960s. It covers those living in three Rio favelas. This is an extremely useful description of the life situation of the more than one million squatters of Rio de Janeiro.

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