26 August 2003


(Reissued as received.)

SANTIAGO, 25 August (ECLAC) -- In 2002, the number of Latin Americans living in poverty reached 220 million people (43.4 per cent), of which 95 million (18.8 per cent) were indigents.  These are among the estimates presented today by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in its advance version of the study, Social Panorama of Latin America 2002-2003.

Progress toward overcoming poverty ground to a halt in the past five years, with poverty and indigence rates remaining practically constant since 1997.  The sole exception was 2000, when better economic performance brought with it a reduction in the volume of poverty by more than 4 million people.

At the country level, trends for these indicators from 1999 to 2002 also revealed rather slight changes.  Exceptions included Argentina and, to a lesser degree, Uruguay, both of which suffered serious declines in living conditions.  In Argentina’s urban areas, poverty rates almost doubled, going from 23.7 per cent to 45.4 per cent, while indigence grew threefold, from 6.7 per cent to 20.9 per cent.

In contrast, Mexico and Ecuador (urban areas) were the only countries studied that posted measurable declines in poverty and indigence during this period.

The ECLAC projections for 2003 indicate that these regional rates will rise yet again, due mainly to the lack of growth in per capita gross domestic product (GDP).  Living conditions in most countries should remain without significant changes in most countries, except Venezuela, where poverty could rise significantly, and Argentina, where it is likely that reactivated economic growth should reduce poverty rates.

Magnitude of Hunger in Region

Almost 55 million people of Latin America and the Caribbean were suffering from some degree of malnutrition toward the end of the past decade.  In a special chapter on hunger, prepared in cooperation with the World Food Programme (WFP), ECLAC estimates that 11 per cent of the population is undernourished.  Almost 9 per cent of children under five years suffer from acute malnutrition (low weight-for-age) and 19.4 per cent from chronic malnutrition (low height-for-age).  This last is particularly grave, because these negative effects are irreversible.

The ECLAC report provides information for 18 Latin American countries on public social expenditure and focuses on the impact of slowing economic growth.  In the past decade, social expenditure per person rose to an average of 58 per cent in the region.  The study concludes that despite a significant slowdown in the expansion of social expenditure posted by virtually all countries from 1990 to 1997, the higher priority assigned to social areas within GDP prevented larger declines in per capita spending as did the preference for expenditure on “human capital” (education and health care) over other items, particularly social security.  This, according to ECLAC, also improved redistributive impact.

Women Now Have More Education But Remain Poorer

In terms of gender and poverty, the study found that in Latin America more women than men live in poverty.  Female household heads have less monetary income than men for poor and high-income households.  Single parent households, mostly headed by women, also suffer from additional disadvantages associated with the lack of unremunerated domestic labour.

Latin American women have higher educational levels than men, and women in the workforce average more years of education.  They nonetheless suffer from more severe unemployment, wage discrimination and restricted working hours than men.  During the 1990s, women’s participation in the workforce rose more quickly than men’s.  But while male unemployment rates rose by 2.9 per cent percentage points from 1990 to 1999, women’s rose by 6.1 per cent.

The ECLAC rated progress in women’s political participation and management positions as still “too slow”, except in countries where affirmative action policies have been implemented.

An examination of household surveys makes it possible to estimate female poverty from the income perspective.  The percentage of women over 15 years of age earning no income was much higher than men.  In urban areas, 45 per cent of women versus 21 per cent of men lacked their own income.

The last chapter, on the Social Agenda, reviews labour conditions and employment policies in Latin America.  All governments have ratified the fundamental international charters on non-discrimination in employment.  This is not the case with children’s labour and regulations governing the minimum working age in the region, which contradict international standards and reveal enormous contradictions among and within countries.

From 1998 to 2003, collective labour laws were reformed in Colombia, as were Chile’s and Guatemala’s labour codes, and laws governing collective bargaining in Cuba.  In Mexico and the Dominican Republic, social security laws were changed.  However, the problem of incompliance with legislation remains.

To palliate the effects of changing modes of employment and rising job insecurity, governments have implemented a range of policies.  Passive types include unemployment insurance, while active ones include credits to small businesses (PYMEs) and intermediation in job searches.  In Latin America, just six countries, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela, have unemployment insurance.

The summary of Social Panorama 2002-2003 will be available in Spanish on the ECLAC Web site on Monday 25 August, at 11:30 am, at

For more information on this study, please contact Arturo León, of the Social Development Division; tel.:  (56-2) 210 2594 or e-mail:


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