Mexican leader says poverty is his priority. But his policy hurts the poor.

NAUCALPAN, Mexico — The only government service this neighborhood outside of Mexico City could rely on was the local elementary school r...

NAUCALPAN, Mexico — The only government service this neighborhood outside of Mexico City could rely on was the local elementary school run by an abandoned wagon. It was a vital lifeline for residents, most of whom live in the remains of a once bustling train station.

Every morning, families squatting in cavernous Naucalpan vans woke their children up for a full day of school, part of a federal program to support working parents by extending hours past the half-day usual followed by most Mexican elementary schools.

But the extended day is over, a victim of the government’s focus on overhauling the welfare system in a shake-up that economists say will hurt Mexico’s poorest and hamper growth in the world’s 15th largest economy.

After claiming victory in 2018, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised the country’s poor that he would end their neglect, while pushing a “poor first” slogan. The party he founded, Morena, was launched a decade ago with a platform to reduce inequality and empower the millions of marginalized Mexicans that most political parties had traditionally overlooked.

But halfway through his six-year term, the plight of Mexico’s lower classes has worsened, and economists say it’s not just because of the devastating effects of the pandemic, but also the result of mismanagement of social programs and the economy.

For Alicia Guadarrama Monroy, who lives with her two daughters and their children in Naucalpan, the school’s extended opening hours meant that all the adults in her household could work. But the school day now ends around noon and one of her daughters has to stay home to look after the children, depriving the family of a much-needed salary.

“It was such a good school,” she said. “But now it’s changed and it’s not the same. There is no support. There is nothing.”

Beyond Naucalpan, hundreds of thousands of parents across Mexico are facing hardship after the federal government scrapped the tracking program this year. Mr. López Obrador’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Mexico was one of the only major global economies not to dramatically increase spending to ease the toll of the pandemic, emphasizing a balanced budget rather than debt to support the country’s most vulnerable.

But the effects of the pandemic, coupled with a lack of government support, pushed an additional 3.8 million Mexicans into poverty by the end of 2020. Today, 44% of Mexicans — nearly 56 million people — are deprived, according to the most recent government data available.

About 5.2 million students have dropped out of school during the pandemic, according to government figures released last year, or about 14% of all school-aged children in Mexico. Many have yet to return – some left to work alongside their parents out of financial need, others because reduced school hours could not support their parents’ work schedules.

Inflation has also slowed the economic recovery, with consumer prices rising 7.99% for the year to Juneea 21-year high, reducing purchasing power for basic necessities like tortillas or cooking oil.

“The level of economic activity in Mexico is still below the pre-pandemic level, and it is probably the only country in Latin America where this is the case,” said Alberto Ramos, head of economic research for America. Latin at Goldman Sachs.

Despite worsening poverty in Mexico, Mr. López Obrador remains one of the most popular leaders in the world, with an approval rating of around 65%. The broad support has left political observers scratching their heads.

For economists, the answer is simple: the government has gutted existing welfare programs in favor of money in the hands of citizens, with few strings attached.

While many economists support direct cash transfers, the new system has removed needs-based criteria from previous programs, raising concerns that the money may not go to those in need or spend it effectively. .

Shortly after taking office, Mr López Obrador canceled Prospera, or Thrive, a 20-year-old program that gave money to poor mothers in exchange for keeping their children in school and taking them to school. for regular medical examinations. The World Bank praised the program for its transparency and for improving socio-economic conditions.

But under the López Obrador administration’s new social program, those requirements have been removed and money is being distributed to Mexicans regardless of income. New programs extended government pensions even to the wealthy, offered internships to unemployed youth, and paid farmers to plant trees.

Mr. López Obrador “doesn’t like anything that isn’t stamped with his brand,” said Valeria Moy, director general of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, an economic research institute.

“Now the aid is cash transfers, there is no longer any objective or goal,” she said. “It is impossible to ensure that the money is spent by families to improve their conditions, to ensure that they send their children to school, instead of buying a television.”

Mr. López Obrador, who is deeply suspicious of the government and angered by the corruption that plagued previous administrations, argued that his direct cash transfer programs had done more to help Mexicans than protection plans previous social.

But the new programs are reaching fewer of Mexico’s poorest families, economists say, despite the government spending more on them.

An apprenticeship program designed to boost employment depends on employers being part of the formal economy, even if 60% of Mexicans work under the table.

“The poorest families receive less social support than three years ago,” said Gonzalo Hernández Licona, the former head of Coneval, the government agency that measures poverty and social development programs.

Instead of placing responsibility on government agencies to ensure that welfare is spent efficiently, Mr. López Obrador has shifted responsibility to millions of Mexicans.

In Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, 45% of families who took their children for medical checkups in exchange for Prospera benefits are no longer doing so under the new welfare plan, threatening to upend earnings for end malnutrition in the region, according to a civic group, Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity.

One of the biggest blows to working families was Mr. López Obrador’s decision to scrap the full-time schools program.

More than 27,000 elementary schools have signed up for the program since its launch in 2007, providing 3.6 million students with hot meals, extra class time and helping parents seek full-time employment, according to Mexico Evalúa. , a research institute.

Yet the president castigated the program for corruption, without providing evidence, and even though a government policy watchdog concluded that the program improved overall student performance.

“It turns out that most of the schools weren’t in the poorest communities and towns,” López Obrador said this year.

Now 2,000 schools have had to cut their extended hours, with more likely to follow, according to Mexicanos Primero, an education advocacy group.

The cuts could affect hundreds of thousands of families, according to government figures assessed by The New York Times, forcing many women to give up working to care for their children.

Under a new structure, the federal government will provide schools with funds to spend as they see fit. Parent committees at each school will decide which initiatives to fund.

But critics say giving thousands of parent committees across Mexico such leeway could lead to corruption, with many working parents unable to participate. A committee could vote to improve infrastructure with contracts going to parents who sell building materials, although the greatest need may be more teachers.

Under the current government, Mexico’s spending per student is one of the lowest among the countries which form the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Parents in the state of Mexico, where Naucalpan is located, are pooling their money to try to save the extended hours, according to the state’s education ministry, which has fought to maintain the curriculum. full-time schools.

In the state of Mexico, the most populous in the country, the program has benefited about 280,000 students, the education ministry said.

When Naucalpan Primary School applied for government funding under the new federal program last year, it was rejected, according to the school principal, because it was not located in a rural area.

Sending government aid to rural areas has been a priority for Mr. López Obrador. While rural areas have traditionally been neglected, about two-thirds of Mexico’s poor live in cities, according to government estimateswhich means that the government’s focus on the countryside comes at a cost to the urban poor.

Economists say the president has an outdated economic outlook and have criticized his administration for focusing at least $25 billion on big infrastructure projects that aren’t necessarily needed.

The projects drain resources, said Mariana Campos, public spending analyst at Mexico Evalúa, and are “not necessarily what Mexico needs for its development.”

Ms Guadarrama, whose family had to make difficult financial sacrifices to keep their children in school, is embittered by the lack of government support.

“Are you wondering ‘this is my government?’ said Ms. Guadarrama. “‘Is this what I should expect?'”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Mexican leader says poverty is his priority. But his policy hurts the poor.
Mexican leader says poverty is his priority. But his policy hurts the poor.
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