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 City.
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.
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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.