Poverty in Latin America
- LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0166
- LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
- 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 era, 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 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 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 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.
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 era, 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 were 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 was that poverty could not be analyzed just from the political or economical 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 which defined poverty and marginality, to recognize the factors which 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 era, 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.
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, 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, which 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 Janerio from the late 1960s. It covers those living in three Rio favalas. This is an extremely useful description of the life situation of the more than one million squatters of Rio de Janerio.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
- Agricultural Technologies
- Ancient Andean Textiles
- Andean Contributions to Rethinking the State and the Natio...
- Andean Music
- Antislavery Narratives
- Arab Diaspora in Brazil, The
- Arab Diaspora in Latin America, The
- Argentina in the Era of Mass Immigration
- Argentina, Slavery in
- Argentine Literature
- Army of Chile in the 19th Century
- Asian Art and Its Impact in the Americas, 1565–1840
- Asian-Peruvian Literature
- Atlantic Creoles
- Baroque and Neo-baroque Literary Tradition
- Bello, Andrés
- Black Experience in Colonial Latin America, The
- Black Experience in Modern Latin America, The
- Borderlands in Latin America, Conquest of
- Bourbon Reforms, The
- Brazilian Northeast, History of the
- Buenos Aires
- Caribbean Philosophical Association, The
- Caribbean, The Archaeology of the
- Cartagena de Indias
- Caste War of Yucatán, The
- Caudillos, 19th Century
- Cádiz Constitution and Liberalism, The
- Chaco War
- Children, History of
- Chile's Struggle for Independence
- Chronicle, The
- Church in Colonial Latin America, The
- Chávez, Hugo, and the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela
- Cinema, Contemporary Brazilian
- Cinema, Latin American
- Colonial Central America
- Colonial Legal History of Peru
- Colonial New Granada
- Colonial Portuguese Amazon Region, from the 17th to 18th C...
- Contemporary Maya, The
- Cortés, Hernán
- Costa Rica
- Cárdenas and Cardenismo
- Cuban Revolution, The
- Dependency Theory in Latin American History
- Development of Architecture in New Spain, 1500–1810, The
- Development of Painting in Peru, 1520–1820, The
- Drug Trades in Latin America
- Dutch in South America and the Caribbean, The
- Early Colonial Forms of Native Expression in Mexico and Pe...
- Economies from Independence to Industrialization
- Ecuador, La Generación del 30 in
- El Salvador
- Enlightenment and its Visual Manifestations in Spanish Ame...
- Environmental History
- Era of Porfirio Díaz, 1876–1911, The
- Family History
- Film, Science Fiction
- Football (Soccer) in Latin America
- Franciscans in Colonial Latin America
- From "National Culture" to the "National Popular" and the ...
- Gaucho Literature
- Gender in Colonial Brazil
- Gender in Postcolonial Latin America
- Guaraní and Their Legacy, The
- Guatemala and Yucatan, Conquest of
- Guatemala City
- Guatemala (Colonial Period)
- Guatemala (Modern & National Period)
- Haitian Revolution, The
- Health and Disease in Modern Latin America, History of
- History, Cultural
- History, Food
- Honor in Latin America to 1900
- Horror in Literature and Film in Latin America
- Human Rights in Latin America
- Immigration in Latin America
- Indigenous Elites in the Colonial Andes
- Indigenous Population and Justice System in Central Mexico...
- Indigenous Voices in Literature
- Japanese Presence in Latin America
- Jewish Presence in Latin America, The
- José María Arguedas and Early 21st Century Cultural and Po...
- Las Casas, Bartolomé de
- Latin American Independence
- Latin American Theater and Performance
- Latin American Urbanism, 1850-1950
- Law and Society in Latin America since 1800
- Legal History of New Spain, 16th-17th Centuries
- Legal History of the State and Church in 18th Century New ...
- Literature, Argentinian
- Machado de Assis
- Magical Realism
- Maroon Societies in Latin America
- Martí, José, and Cuba
- Mestizaje and the Legacy of José María Arguedas
- Mexican Nationalism
- Mexican Revolution, 1910–1940, The
- Mexican-US Relations
- Mexico, Conquest of
- Mexico, Education in
- Migration to the United States
- Military and Modern Latin America, The
- Military Government in Latin America, 1959–1990
- Military Institution in Colonial Latin America, The
- Modern Decorative Arts and Design, 1900–2000
- Modern Populism in Latin America
- Modernity and Decoloniality
- Musical Tradition in Latin America, The
- Native Presence in Postconquest Central Peru
- New Conquest History and the New Philology in Colonial Mes...
- New Left in Latin America, The
- Novel, Chronology of the Venezuelan
- Novel of the Mexican Revolution, The
- Novel, 19th Century Haitian
- Novel, The Colombian
- Oaxaca, Conquest and Colonial
- Painting in New Spain, 1521–1820
- Paraguayan War (War of the Triple Alliance)
- Pastoralism in the Andes
- Paz, Octavio
- Perón and Peronism
- Peru, Colonial
- Peru, Conquest of
- Peru, Slavery in
- Philippines Under Spanish Rule, 1571-1898
- Photography in the History of Race and Nation
- Political Exile in Latin America
- Ponce de León
- Popular Culture and Globalization
- Popular Movements in 19th-Century Latin America
- Post Conquest Aztecs
- Post-Conquest Demographic Collapse
- Poverty in Latin America
- Preconquest Incas
- Pre-conquest Mesoamerican States, The
- Pre-Revolutionary Mexico, State and Nation Formation in
- Printing and the Book
- Prints and the Circulation of Colonial Images
- Protestantism in Latin America
- Puerto Rican Literature
- Religions in Latin America
- Revolution and Reaction in Central America
- Rosas, Juan Manuel de
- Sandinista Revolution and the FSLN, The
- Santo Domingo
- Science and Empire in the Iberian Atlantic
- Science and Technology in Modern Latin America
- Sexualities in Latin America and the Caribbean
- Slavery in Brazil
- São Paulo
- Spanish American Arab Literature
- Spanish and Portuguese Trade, 1500–1750
- Spanish Caribbean In The Colonial Period, The
- Spanish Colonial Decorative Arts, 1500-1825
- Spanish Florida
- Spiritual Conquest of Latin America, The
- Sports in Latin America and the Caribbean
- Telenovelas and Melodrama in Latin America
- Textile Traditions of the Andes
- 19th Century and Modernismo Poetry in Spanish America
- 16th-Century New Spain
- Transculturation and Literature
- Trujillo, Rafael
- Tupac Amaru Rebellion, The
- United States and Castro's Cuba in the Cold War, The
- United States and the Guatemalan Revolution, The
- United States Invasion of the Dominican Republic, 1961–196...
- Urban History
- Urbanization in the 20th Century, Latin America’s
- U.S.-Latin American Relations During the Cold War
- Vargas, Getúlio
- Venezuelan Literature
- Women and Labor in 20th-Century Latin America
- Women in Colonial Latin American History
- Women in Modern Latin American History
- Women's Property Rights, Asset Ownership, and Wealth in La...
- Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas