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.
Silvia Otera Bohamón
There are, of course, different groups of people, but an important one is the one that includes those who, over the last 10-15 years of rapid growth, have not been able to overcome poverty. Market forces and economic development have boosted millions of people out of poverty in most Latin American countries, but those who have not been so fortunate are very vulnerable.
People lack education, access to markets, and state services – they are also under the control of state competitors, such as gangs, cartels and paramilitaries, and are forced to work in informal sectors, far from the main urban centres. In Colombia, for example, a 2010 ELCA survey found that 80% of those in the lowest quartile were still in the lowest quartile in 2016. Only 17% moved up into the third quartile. So it’s this population who are the most vulnerable today.
Latin America’s most vulnerable are those in the brown zones: areas where the state is absent, in terms of effective bureaucracy, public service provision and properly sanctioned legality. Depending on the country, you have a different threat, but increasingly public security is becoming a big issue in many Latin American countries – and this comes down to the state’s presence in its territories.
If we talk about poverty, it is important to remember it’s not just poor households that are vulnerable in Latin America, but also the non-poor who have a high risk of becoming poor. In the case of Peru, our research has found that this vulnerability is structural: the high income instability of the primary sector and informal microenterprises in urban areas; levels of education; ethnicity; the demographics of the household, and your geographic surroundings. These factors define an individual’s productive opportunities, and reflect the presence of the state. As such, 30% of Peru’s total population, and almost 50% of its non-poor population, should be considered as being vulnerable to poverty.
Let’s say, you look at the poorest, which in my view are the most vulnerable in society. In Latin America this is about 10% of the entire population of the area, which is about 80,000,000 living on $2.5 a day, which is the new poverty line derived by the World Bank. We know that among the poor children and women are often the most vulnerable. Also people in old age. These groups are vulnerable for a number of reasons: because they cannot access labour markets, because they are vulnerable and subject to discrimination or because they face barriers to entering markets. Children cannot work because they’re not strong enough. Women are often discriminated against, and the elderly, they don’t have the physical power to work. So these are, in my view, the most vulnerable.
But there’s another category that’s even bigger. It’s about 40% of the population of Latin America. Those living on above $4 a day but under $10 a day. They are not middle class; they are not considered to be poor but they are technically defined as vulnerable to poverty. Why? Because they’re really exposed to shocks like financial crises; they lose their jobs; they lose their small businesses; they are also really vulnerable to environmental shocks. They are also the ones who often live in the slums of big cities, which suffer from all sorts of risks like crime. And they are often exposed to flooding and fire and higher costs of transportation to go to the market place. This is perhaps the biggest group of people in Latin America who are very vulnerable.
Also, within this group young people are very vulnerable. Especially when you think about how one in every five people aged 15 and 25 doesn’t work or study in Latin America. So when you think about that, that's 20% of the young population who don’t have any justification for thinking about the future – they are demoralised. They are not working, and they are not studying, they are not doing anything. So these are the ones who are recruited by criminal organisations, like the drug cartels. This is a social issue, a very severe problem in Latin America.