Innovations in Mexico Lift Up Country's Poor

I sat with my family under a shady ficus tree
last week in Melaque, Mexico. Filled with contentment from a good
seafood lunch, we fell into the dangerous activity of drawing broad
observations about our single week in the country. Nary a donkey or
sombrero was among our impressions of Mexico, however, which were
not of sleepy agrarian poverty. Rather, we were impressed with the
can-do pragmatism, good-humored community and holiday celebrations,
effective public services, and healthy-seeming families we met and
saw. We particularly commented on the intelligence and optimism
among young women we met.

It was interesting, therefore, the next day
to read a New York Times magazine, which featured a long story by
Tina Rosenberg on Mexico's social welfare innovations of the last
decade. Designed to address underlying causes of poverty, and not
just alleviate its symptoms, Mexico's initiatives have attracted
international acclaim and imitation, including in New York

The program's designers accepted the
traditionally recognized social precursors to poverty, including a
disregard for education among the poor, a sense of fatalism, poor
health among children, alcoholism, an inability to plan for the
future, and other reinforcers of poverty. What they did not accept
was that those conditions were inherent and unchangeable. Unlike
conservative thinkers who have challenged programs in the U.S. and
elsewhere as wasted efforts to help people too entrenched in
poverty's grip to be helped, Mexico's policy leaders risked trying
to address poverty's underlying preconditions.

Their program, called Opportunidades,
replaces Mexico's long-established system of offering food
subsidies with a simple program of cash payments to very poor
families. Payments are conditioned on documented achievement of
specific expectations, such as taking children to medical checkups,
attending workshops on health and nutrition, requiring one's
children to attend school daily. The payments go to women, who are
deemed more likely than men to spend them on food, clothes and
family needs. To avoid corruption from local officials and keep
overhead costs low, payments are made directly from the national
government through banks.

Results are impressive so far. In December of
1994, the peso was devalued, leading to a 40 percent drop in its
value by early 1995, throwing more than 37 percent of Mexico's
population into extreme poverty. Even with such economic
devastation, and despite poor economic growth in Mexico, the
percent of Mexicans living in extreme poverty fell to 13.8 percent
by 2006, around a decade after the program began. Rates of
malnutrition and childhood and adult diseases have dropped, and
children of Opportunidades families are staying in school longer --
at especially high rates in rural areas, where poverty has
historically been most entrenched.

Rosenberg focuses on many factors involved in
the success of Opportunidades. Its designers fully recognized the
nature of the problem, which had been studied for decades. They
undertook a pilot program first, rather than introducing it with
huge fanfare. This both gave hard evidence of its potential, making
it difficult for naysayers to undercut it, and allowed its creators
to design it as they felt it ought to be designed, rather than
subject it to more typical accommodations of the political process.
They tailored the program to specific social and cultural
conditions of Mexico's poorest communities. They introduced clear
conditions for receiving cash payments, which directly addressed
underlying social dysfunctions. And they set mechanisms to verify
both that families enrolled in the program were indeed the poorest
of the poor and that they met the conditions of the payments.

Nobody knows how the globe's current economic
hardships will affect Mexico's social reforms, but its first decade
indisputably helped shape a healthier, better educated, more
dynamic population.

My other vacation reading included articles
expounding on the challenges facing the Obama administration and
the world. His administration would do well to heed lessons from
Mexico's social reforms. Mexico demonstrated how a few leaders,
well informed about a problem, could take political risks to
challenge orthodox assumptions, replacing methods that had not
worked with strategically designed alternatives. And create
impressive change. It's a remarkable model.

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