Silvana Maubrigades

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Silvana is a Professor of Economic History and Sociology at Universidad de la República in Uruguay. Her main research fields are gender, education, and development. 

Silvana Maubrigades
12 June 2017

Who are society’s most vulnerable in Latin America?

If we associate vulnerability with poverty, then Latin America undoubtedly still has a relevant vulnerable population. The first decades of the 21st century represent a turning point for inequality in the region as social indicators show inequality has decreased, although the problem is far from being solved.

Social vulnerability in the region is linked to sectors that offer precarious opportunities for insertion into the regional economy, into its formal circuit. Women continue to represent a majority within the affected groups. Added to this is the fact that the increase in jobs produced as a result of globalisation processes has not contributed to eliminate labor precariousness, nor has it increased demand for skilled labor that contributes to improvements in sustainable social equality.

Young people and children are also an important portion of this vulnerable population, which compromises long-term changes to this scenario. The region’s educational levels have improved significantly since 1950, but the region is far from reaching educational levels close to developed countries. Women have shown the better performance, but this has not been reflected in improved labor market participation.


How could the region’s apparent shift away from populism effect inequality reduction?

In the last 15 years, the region has experienced favorable political environments for improvements in inequality indicators, both in terms of income distribution and access to better living conditions. The situation, however, is not homogeneous across the region. The southern cone continues to stand out for providing better living conditions to its population and Chile is still a country with high levels of inequality, especially in terms of wages, despite the levels of economic growth.

During the same time period, many countries in the region have experienced a change in political direction towards the center-left, though this did not substantially change countries’ economic policies. Inequality decreased through redistribution among the lower and middle classes, while the upper classes were little affected by this redistributive process. The labor market has been the largest source of redistribution, with reduction in global unemployment and a steady increase in regulation. It is not clear that this is an easy phenomenon to maintain over time, especially with this current scenario of slowing economic growth, or possible recessions looming in countries like Brazil.


What should every policy maker have at the front of their mind when working to reduce inequality in Latin America?

With different levels of development, Latin America had distributive policy attempts in the mid-twentieth century, which failed to survive beyond the 1970s. In these circumstances, it became apparent that the region’s main weakness was its source of income and its dependence on international trade of primary goods. This structural constraint says a lot about the problems of inequality, both because the primary export model creates few jobs in some countries, and because it generates low-skilled and low-paid jobs.

A path worth to be explored by policymakers is the improvement of public policies that support social welfare. Education and health are the two central pillars in terms of quality of life and no substantive improvements have been made in this area beyond specific investments in some countries. It is difficult to overcome assistentialism policies and move to the concretisation of improvements that translate into better jobs, greater appreciation of the qualification and regulation of the labor market. The region is working on that, but dependence on the economic model is strong and limits achievement.


The region is one of the most violent, it is also one of the most unequal, is there a link?

Violence is a difficult concept to tackle in a simple and linear way. Violence exists all over the world and every region is vulnerable to violence.

If we assume that poverty produces violence, then we can say that the historical inequalities of the region have produced violent environments among its population. As Latin American history is filled with struggle, first for its independence, then for its consolidation and then for political strategies to carry out national projects, we can assume that violence has been a strong component throughout such struggles, even in efforts to solve inequality issues in the region.

Limiting the question to the present, the region’s current scenario of economic, social and political changes has been the one that presents the lowest levels of violence in historical terms, although violence is still present in two types of manifestations that must be considered. Repression carried out by some economic and / or political sectors against the most vulnerable (as seen in some parts of Mexico) and interpersonal, or intra-family violence, which has become an issue in recent years. While this issue has always existed, women-led social mobilisations have brought to light issues relating to domestic violence, which many believed were culturally accepted. There is a long road ahead for Latin American women, which undoubtedly goes hand in hand with their greater participation in the labor market, their economic independence, the precariousness of the job opportunities offered to them, new family arrangements, and the role that Latin American societies assign to women, which has reached no consensus yet.

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