Besides indignation, the photo shoots of the entourage of the governor of Nuevo León handing out bread to the homeless people should inspire discussion on the problem of poverty is handled by state governments. This essay explains what structural poverty reduction does and does not look like.
The apparently weekly photo opportunities of the NL governor and his wife with vulnerable populations, the latter was seen handing out bread and singing to homeless people. This is merely the new influencer variant of the old tradition of (rich) governors all around Mexico simulating that they care for those in extreme poverty. I will let other commentators speculate about the intentions of these good people, my focus is on the policy. While thousands of citizens engage in daily charitable acts of kindness towards those who struggle, we should expect the government to actually help people and fulfill their social rights. As a sociologist that has researched and written about poverty reduction for a decade, I will first share my views on poverty and the different approaches to poverty reduction. After indicating a strong preference for a structural approach, I will make four concrete suggestions on what state governments could do.
Poverty refers to the social condition in which people have such a shortage in economic resources, that they become socially excluded on multiple domains of societal life. Poverty is in its core a problem of economic distribution, but it manifests itself in other deprivations: hunger, suffering cold and heat, lack of security, mobility, education, etc. In an urban context, CONEVAL considers a person in extreme poverty when they have less than 1901$ per month (1463 in countryside), and in relative poverty when they have 3916 peso (2784 in countryside). One can explain this situation in various ways, ranging from individual misfortune or mistakes, to external events like the pandemic. All perspectives are understandable, however only a structural approach that looks at the composition and functioning of society can explain large variations over time and space.
Poverty as a social problem can be handled in various ways, both by governments (federal, state, city), civil society and companies. After studying many of these initiatives both here and in Europe, I found that such interventions can be categorized into three layers:
1. Non-structural interventions: in these initiatives poverty is not actually reduced but rather managed, since there is no change in the position of individuals nor in the structure of society. This includes for example charity that is aimed at helping people survive, but also more ’fosfo’ initiatives such as painting poor neighborhoods in bright colors or giving advice and entertainment. Lastly, all sorts of PRI-era policy simulation falls under this category, where much is promised but some half-finished buildings are delivered.
2. Semi-structural intervention: these initiatives focus on (potentially) improving the lives or the social mobility of people in poverty, although the structure of society remains the same. This is what is commonly understood as poverty reduction, and includes job training, (micro)loans, social work, debt counseling, or initiatives that aim to include people in very specific aspects (for example mobility). While useful, this is still limited in a fundamentally unequal society that is structured like a pyramid, since people often advance at the cost of each other.
3. Structural interventions: these initiatives change the functioning of society in a way that reduces the overall risk of poverty for families by either tackling the causes of poverty or compensating for them. Examples include raising pensions, providing replacement income for people with disabilities, minimum wages, employment projects, economical reconversion plans, educational support, etc.
All three layers are useful, but only the third can lead to durable changes. Our actions as normal citizens are usually limited to interventions of the first kind (charity). In many states we traditionally have relied on the charities of large companies and civil organizations to contribute to the second, in addition to some government programs. It is the role of policy makers to undertake initiatives in the third sphere, since only they can coordinate such structural changes. It is not their role to hand out bread or entertain, but to actually help people in ways that they themselves cannot and are in line with their constitutional social rights.
So what is to be done, understanding of course that a state government has limited responsibilities and resources in this policy domain? I will propose four actions that state governments can explore, the first two dealing explicitly with the extreme poverty of those on the streets:
1. The construction of temporary housing. While a child will usually understand this better than adults, what homeless people need more than anything else is a home. The condition of homelessness itself keeps people in extreme poverty, as one struggles to build a life without an address or a place to keep belongings and maintain one’s body. State governments can contribute to this by expanding shelter capacity, for which many cities rely on religious initiatives. Even better than temporary shelters would be the development of a social housing stock, which exists in most developed countries but not in most Mexican states. State governments are in an excellent position to plan such projects. The reconversion of the many abandoned buildings and sites that disgrace our metropolis into either temporary free (for the homeless) or low-rent living units would be a structural response to this problem.
2. Use social work to promote federal assistance programs. Many of the beggars we encounter on the street either suffer from some form of disability, or bring their children along to the street. The prime responsibility for social assistance to these people lays with the federal, not the state government.
The 4T has developed and expanded various programs that could help these people, such as an income for those with disabilities (which got freshly expanded to include older adults), conditional cash transfers to poor families to keep their children in school, the ever expanding universal pension, etc. The problem is that many people on the street either don’t know these programs or are unable to register for them. This is where state governments can support federal efforts by designating (more) resources to a taskforce that helps people in poor neighborhoods enroll in these programs. This type of cooperation is not exciting in terms of political marketing, but pays off double in terms of results.
3. Develop state level social employment programs. There is a difference between being able to work, and being able to find work in a competitive job market. There are ten thousands of people who could be useful but that are pushed aside or overlooked. An example of a structural response is the federal ‘Jovenes Construyendo El Futuro’ program that creates paid internships for young people. One of the limitations of the program (and Mexican social policy in general) is that after 30 there is no help, especially for men. This is where the state government could step in and invest in social employment projects that will hire and train exactly those people (for example ex-convicts or addicts) that have the least chances of succeeding on the labor market and the highest chances of ending on the street. From filling the holes in the road, to isolating houses or manning kitchens, state governments could create many roads to re-integration.
4. Support or develop an unemployment insurance. One of the biggest holes in Mexican social policy is the lack of protection against sudden job loss. This would have massively helped in dealing with the lockdowns in 2020 and acts as a buffer against the creeping replacement of people by robots that threatens our industrial state. Currently both the federal government and opposition show interest in developing such a policy, although the debate on how to exactly do this could take years. Governors of economically stronger states could either add his political weight to the demand for this policy, or if federal efforts fail, follow Mexico city in developing a state level variant. I have spent much time developing and calculating exactly such a policy myself for Nuevo León, and will keep promoting it to anyone interested.
The above are just four proposals out of many. What matters is the common approach: creating real solutions that tackle real causes. Our politics cannot keep relying on – or worse: mimicking – the often classist (or infantile) understanding of this social problem of our local economic elites. Nor do we need weak copies of federal programs or symbolic actions. What we need, especially in the North which is less in step with federal evolutions, is a social policy that means business. We end with the words of the Irish Poet Oscar Wilde, painfully applicable after more than a hundred years:
“They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor. But this is not a solution. It is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible” (Wilde, 1891)