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Measuring UpA History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1850-1950$

Moramay Lopez-Alonso

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780804773164

Published to Stanford Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.11126/stanford/9780804773164.001.0001

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Overview and Final Conclusions

Overview and Final Conclusions

(p.207) Overview and Final Conclusions
Measuring Up
Stanford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter sums up the key findings of this study on the history of living standards in Mexico during the period from 1850 to 1950. It discusses the reasons for the continuing inequality in health services and highlights the negative impact of state bureaucracy on welfare and poverty alleviation programs. This chapter also argues that the evolution of living standards with regard to poverty and inequality is the result of political decisions as much as economic performance, scientific advances, and technological innovations.

Keywords:   living standards, Mexico, inequality, health services, state bureaucracy, welfare programs, poverty alleviation, political decisions, economic performance, scientific advances

In the period 1850–1950 Mexico experienced profound social, political, and economic transformations that touched the different segments of society in diverse ways, altering their quality of life. Each is a different story in the evolution of living standards. The fate of each group was determined by their income level, participation in the process of economic modernization and growth, opportunities for advancement, and guarantee of respect for their property rights. Measuring Up identifies three different stories, each portraying people's place on the social ladder: the rich, the laboring classes who were integrated in the formal economy, and the remainder of the popular classes.

Using adult statures as a measure of the biological standard of living, I traced the history of each group. The group at the top of the social ladder got taller over the period covered in the passport sample. Despite political instability, economic stagnation, and the poor state of public finances suffered during the 1860s and 1870s, the better-off portion of the population saw their standards of living improve, and this continued up until the first decades of the twentieth century. The passport sample also included people belonging to the laboring classes. These were individuals who could afford to travel abroad on a passport and were therefore not at the bottom of the social ladder. This group, albeit shorter than the elite, also got taller over time, and their average statures tended to converge with the statures of the wealthier portion of the population. The trends in heights of these two groups are similar to the evolution of GDP per capita. Height differentials across social classes are steeper among men than among women. Nonetheless, as I explain in Section 2, the difference in trajectories between men and women are driven by sexual dimorphism, literacy rates, and urbanization.

In contrast, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the great majority of the population belonging to the working classes underwent a gradual deterioration in their biological standards of living. The average stature of Mexicans born between 1850 and 1890 declined, indicating that for those born during the last decade of the nineteenth century living (p.208) standards stagnated. For cohorts born in the first decade of the 1900s conditions improved modestly, but then living standards deteriorated again for people born in the 1910s and 1920s. Living standards began to improve for cohorts born during the 1930s and onward, so by 1950 average statures were back to their 1850s levels. For most of the period studied, the living standards of the largest portion of the popular classes do not coincide with the evolution of GDP per capita. Neither do they coincide with the evolution of living standards of the middle and upper-middle classes. Drawing regional comparisons we find that, in general, people from the north and the bajío were taller than people from the center and south. Nonetheless, the gap is wider in the military samples than in the passport sample.

For the popular classes, biological standards of living do not accord with what the official history purports, that is, claims that their well-being improved. On the contrary, living conditions deteriorated for cohorts who were born and grew up after the launching of the liberal reforms. During the first two decades of the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship, standards of living stagnated. There was a mild recovery for cohorts born and raised during the third decade of the Díaz administration. Living conditions deteriorated again during the years of the revolution and the 1920s. Substantial recovery only started in the 1930s, coinciding with the launching of the welfare state.

The evolution of living standards with regard to poverty and inequality is the result of political decisions as much as economic performance, scientific advances, and technological innovations. Therefore, by examining the history of living standards through the lens of politics, social institutions, demography, health, and dietary habits, it is possible to understand how these factors interacted to create the different patterns in living conditions across social groups. We can delve more deeply into the underlying causes of endemic poverty and inequality in Mexico. In brief, such a multifaceted approach yields a more complete picture.

Political and institution-building factors are fundamental to an understanding of the history of welfare provision and social assistance, and reveal how this had an impact on the living standards of the population. For most of this one-hundred-year period, the different governments pushed welfare, charity, and assistance issues into the background and failed to establish an agenda for poverty relief until the late 1930s. For better or worse, political decisions did affect institutions and organizations related to welfare provision. However, this happened unintentionally, as the fate of the needy was not an issue of major concern for the government.

Anticlerical policies stemming from liberal reforms launched during the second half of the nineteenth century prevented the Church from assisting (p.209) the poor the way it had done since the colonial period. The government's prime motive was to undermine the power of the Catholic Church by divesting its wealth and banning it from traditional activities, including educating children, caring for the sick, assisting the poor, and, last but not least, managing its holdings. Liberal politicians were too vested in debilitating the Church's power and in plundering their recently expropriated assets to consider the potential harm this reform could inflict on the people that the Church tended. Nor did they assume the responsibility of assisting the needy. Despite multiple anticlerical efforts, the Catholic Church's charitable enterprises did not disappear altogether. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the Church channeled its charitable efforts to groups that held no interest for the government. The secularization of welfare institutions therefore exacerbated social polarization.

In the name of liberal reforms and while attempting to emulate development models from abroad, the government also decided that private property was the best form of land tenure. Consequently, the government proceeded to disentail communal property and tried to force everyone into a private ownership system. In one stroke, the government wanted to erase traditional organizations that had functioned effectively for centuries; in doing so, it jeopardized the ability of a large number of peasant communities to retain ownership of their land and their means of subsistence. Corporate organizations, so ubiquitous among the popular classes, were also viewed as backward and deemed undesirable if they had any link to the Catholic Church. As part of the liberal reform project launched in the 1850s, the government also banned religious corporations of lay members and ordered the disentailment of any property held by them. These corporations served as social safety nets for the popular classes. By rendering them illegal, the government was also delegitimizing a survival mechanism for people at the bottom of the social ladder. This reform was met with resistance, and these forms of corporate organization were not fully eliminated. These institutional transformations also exacerbated social polarization. This is not to deny that in some cases some individuals in the community were able to benefit from privatization, but in general no positive outcome came out of this initiative for the communities affected by it.

During the Porfirio Díaz administration some private welfare institutions emerged that were funded and founded by members of the oligarchy. In some cases, their creation was motivated by the desire of well-traveled elites to emulate the charitable initiatives of their European counterparts. In other cases, successful businesspeople wanted to do some good for the communities they lived in. Most of these efforts went to the urban needy. (p.210) The scope of these welfare institutions remained limited because the government failed to create legislation that would back them up. These institutions operated under feeble legal circumstances that made them vulnerable to government expropriation; more than anything, they operated in spite of the government. Assistance coming from these institutions helped the urban poor, yet the great majority of the needy were in the countryside.

New forms of production created new labor relationships. In addition, peasants who lost their land began to seek alternatives for earning their living. In general during the second half of the nineteenth century, more people began to work for wages. The 1857 Constitution did not contemplate the need to regulate labor. However, in 1865, Emperor Maximilian explicitly granted freedom of labor, although this freedom did not mean that other job opportunities existed. In addition, this freedom rendered workers more vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of foodstuffs and to hazards outside their control such as sickness, accidents, and unemployment. This vulnerability was common in societies that were inspired by liberal ideologies, and this was the case in Western European countries. Nonetheless, these countries had previously developed social mechanisms to assist workers who found themselves in a precarious condition. These assistance mechanisms operated through state or community-based organizations stemming from poverty-relief legislation. In Mexico nothing of this sort existed. Interestingly, it was fear of the spread of socialist and communist ideas coming from abroad that eventually motivated authorities of the Porfirio Díaz government to develop social legislation. In Mexico this type of social legislation was inspired by the need to regulate labor. One of the great gains of the 1910 Revolution was labor legislation emerging from the 1917 Constitution. Finally, in the late 1930s, the government enacted a social security law.

The postrevolutionary state decided to protect its laboring classes with a double incentive. First, in granting workers the benefits they demanded, the government kept its labor pool in good condition. After all, labor was an input in the productive process. Second, it guaranteed these groups would be political allies. The labor law was designed in such a way that the government became a mediator in the relationship between employers and workers. These groups were unionized for the most part. The laboring classes that benefited from the social legislation were able to improve their living conditions. This group, however, was a minority of the laboring classes because a good number of productive activities remained unregulated throughout this period.

(p.211) In Mexico, the creation of a welfare state was a by-product of labor legislation but not of poor relief legislation, as in Western European countries. This is why it only covered a limited portion of the laboring classes. Why did the Mexican government defer the creation of a welfare law and its enforcement for so long? A brief overview of the economic history of Mexico of this time period can provide us with a clue: there was nothing in it for them. Business and political interests were closely intertwined to the extent that policy decisions were heavily based on the interest of the business class. Social assistance to the poor did not yield any profit to either businesspeople or politicians of the period. However, postponing the creation of a mechanism that would serve as a social safety net allowed social backwardness to reach proportions that would eventually become a heavy burden to society. It was not until the late 1930s that politicians came to recognize there were gains to be made from integrating people into the economy. Moreover, as elections to political office became more regular, the votes of the poor began to matter. Politicians seeking legitimacy through the popular vote realized that there were potential benefits from providing assistance to the needy. Yet, the amount of help given was insufficient to meet the needs of those at the bottom of the social ladder.

Global scientific advances and technological innovations of the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries opened up opportunities for improving the living conditions of the world's population. Research in biology and chemistry made it possible to diagnose, prevent, and cure the most deadly infectious diseases of the preindustrial era. Developments in civil engineering permitted the construction of sanitary infrastructure that made cities healthier places to live. Such advances were developed and implemented in Europe, the United States, and wealthy European colonies like Canada, South Africa, and Australia. In Mexico, these improvements were adopted quite rapidly with the advantage of not having had to invest in research and development to make use of these scientific advances and technological innovations. Unfortunately, investments that were conducive to the improvement of public health only reached a small portion of the population. Sanitary infrastructure was built in the well-to-do areas of the main cities. Hospitals and clinics offering state-of-the-art medical treatments had very limited coverage.

In the first years of the postrevolutionary international era, health organizations provided assistance to eradicate diseases that were related to unhealthy sanitary conditions in rural areas. These programs were focused on building sanitary infrastructure and providing health education to the (p.212) population. Not surprisingly, international aid focused on localities where there were business opportunities, such as ports and regions suitable for the development of agribusiness. The underlying motivation for groups sponsoring these programs was that healthier people made better workers. Although the health and living conditions of people in these areas improved, there were many others localities neglected by the government and international agencies. The period immediately preceding elections produced a flurry of government initiatives. For example, during this time period, the government launched massive vaccination campaigns. These campaigns did help reduce infant mortality rates. Still, by 1950 only a limited portion of the population had access to some form of health care.

Demographic behavior, on the other hand, posed a challenge to governmental efforts to improve public health. Since the colonial period traditional fertility patterns of the Mexican population had differed substantially from those of Western European countries. Age of marriage was systematically lower in Mexico. In addition, unrestricted fertility and unmarried fertility were common in the population. Higher rates of mortality kept population growth at preindustrial rates up until the late nineteenth century. In Mexico at the onset of the twentieth century, life expectancy at birth was circa twenty-five years when it was already circa fifty years in countries such as England. High fertility rates alone helped Mexico recover from the death toll of the 1910 Revolution. Even when mortality rates began to decline due to vaccination campaigns and better sanitation services, fertility rates remained the same among most of the population. Such behavior was also divergent from traditional European demographic patterns. Cultural values and the absence of social mechanisms that would serve as social safety nets help explain the persistence of high fertility rates. In the absence of a welfare state, children were considered an investment for old age. The high value attached to motherhood in Mexican society explains the fact that unmarried fertility, although frowned upon by the upper and middle classes, remained common among the lower strata of the population. As a result, by 1950 the Mexican population was on its way to a demographic explosion. Piecemeal efforts to provide social assistance and improve public health conditions were hardly ever enough to keep up with the needs of the rapidly growing population. Insufficient provision of health services could not improve the living standards of the population. Health improved for those sectors that had access to a sanitary infrastructure and to basic medical services; these were the well-to-do groups and workers protected by social legislation. In 1950, more people survived than a century earlier, but not in better health conditions.

(p.213) The quality of diet can improve the living conditions of an individual or cause them to deteriorate. An examination of the evolution of dietary habits of the Mexican population allows one to determine the effects of diet on the biological standards of living of the population. With the development of transportation and the modernization of the economy it became easier to transport a wider variety of foodstuffs. Higher-income people were always able to gain access to the best foodstuffs available, so nutrition was not an issue for this group. Urban workers also had an increasingly wider variety of foodstuffs, and some could afford to have more meat in their diet. The diet of the popular classes, however, barely changed from 1850 to 1950. Nutritional censuses of the mid-twentieth century certify this. Evaluating the traditional diet of the majority of rural locations in Mexico alongside modern nutritional standards verifies that in general a great portion of the Mexican population had a low protein intake and insufficient intake of other important nutrients such as vitamins A and C. This insufficiency was conducive to stunted growth.

How different was the history of living standards in Mexico from the countries it tried to emulate? Placing Mexico in this international context is useful for at least two reasons. First, it allows us to ascertain Mexico's performance with respect to Western European countries and the United States. This comparison facilitates the understanding of the processes that shape the evolution of living standards, such as industrialization and demographic transition.1It is also helpful to grasp the extent to which public policies failed to promote an improvement in living conditions among the population at large. Mexico industrialized later than most Western European countries or the United States; it remained a mainly rural country until the late 1930s. Still, germ theory in public health was recognized and adopted shortly after its emergence in the Western world. Mexico's evolution of living standards was similar to Spain's and Italy's during the period 1850–1950. Nonetheless, their post-1950 paths would diverge dramatically.

Developing countries are at the frontier of the anthropometric history field.2This book hopes to inspire more studies of this kind in other Latin American and developing countries. In addition, it opens doors to further research on the anthropometric history of Mexico in at least three different directions.

First, the study of living standards in the period 1850–1950 offers a macrolevel, long-term approach and provides a point of departure for further, regional studies perhaps covering shorter periods of time. Although “every field of scholarship, not just human history, experiences tensions between narrowly focused case studies and broader syntheses or generalizations … (p.214) scholarly understanding requires both approaches.”3Anthropometric history studies could offer a more detailed picture of the evolution of biological standards of living of various populations. Such studies could provide a more thorough perspective on the role that regional politics, natural resource endowment, opportunities for industrial development, and demography played in defining the living standards of each population. Anthropometric studies may shed light on the level of economic growth and modernization in the region.

Second, Measuring Up demonstrates that it is possible to undertake studies prior to 1850. This can be done using additional sources of data. There were censuses made during the last years of the colonial period that have information on heights, as well as military records of the early national period. To examine periods that go further back in time, there are samples of skeletal remains from which it is possible to estimate heights, as well as to portray “aspects of health over the life cycle, as opposed to the growing years.”4Because modern Mexico was the core of Mesoamerica, there are a large number of skeletal remains to be studied to uncover the biological standards of living as far back as the precolonial era. Physical anthropologists have conducted extensive research on osteological evidence that has yet to be explained through the lens of anthropometric history and put to use in other disciplines.5

Third, as regards the post-1950 period, it is possible to work with more detailed data and with more accurate and sophisticated models. This is of the utmost importance in light of the fact that after 1950 Mexico transformed at an even faster pace while still carrying lags from the past. With extant information it is possible to build larger data sets with more detailed information; for example, information on weight is available for the post-1950 period. Examining the anthropometric history of this period will enable researchers to establish links between lags in social development and public health problems of the twenty-first century such as diabetes and obesity.

The purpose of this book has been to provide a national perspective on living standards using multidisciplinary tools. It was structured in such a way that it could be accessible to people in different disciplines. For historians of Mexico, I expect that this book can complement cultural history studies on the working classes. By offering an account of the material living conditions and their effects on the biological standards of living, it sheds light on another dimension of the life of the marginalized living in the period 1850–1950. Measuring Up shows that there are topics in which there can be a dialogue between cultural history and economic history. It also (p.215) contributes to the field of Mexican economic history by studying a topic that has received little attention in recent scholarship.6

For social science historians interested in a macrolevel, long-term perspective, this book is a contribution designed to fill the void on studies concerning living standards prior to 1950. I contend that new methodologies available make it possible to examine the history of those who were not integrated into the formal economy. Anthropometric history is useful for assessing how the flaws in the process of economic modernization and growth coupled with piecemeal policies affected a large portion of the population. After all, the negative impact took its toll.

For economists and public policy makers, this book contributes to an understanding of the origins of poverty and inequality prior to the first measurement of income distribution in 1957 by demonstrating that history matters. The information it provides invites researchers to stop focusing exclusively on the examination of inputs—namely, the policies and the resources spent on allegedly improving living standards—and to begin to add balance to their analysis by examining the results of the implementation of such policies while assessing the efficiency with which resources were actually allocated.7In brief, this book seeks to convey a much-needed long-term perspective. Measuring Up shows that there can be a dialogue between historians and economists: historians can still write economic history books with findings that can be useful for economists and policy makers.8

This study in historical economics also aims to motivate researchers who design public policies intended to alleviate poverty. In addition to their skilled use of the basic postulates of modern economic theory, they can gain an appreciation that scholarly research in the social sciences can contribute to an understanding of the complex problem of poverty.9Indeed, the research and methods described in this book may have applications that go beyond the issue of poverty. Last, but not least, Measuring Up provides an explanation of how it was that Mexico got to the mid-twentieth century with such high levels of poverty and inequality. There is a need to raise awareness of how leaving social development at the bottom of the government's agenda created and can still create very critical lags. Over time, these lags accumulate and make problems of poverty grow larger, more complex, and more difficult to solve. (p.216)


(1.) Steckel and Floud, Health and Welfare, 437).

(2.) Richard H. Steckel, “Heights and Human Welfare: Recent Developments and New Dimensions,” Explorations in Economic History46 (2009): 14.

(3.) Diamond and James A. Robinson, “Afterword: Using Comparative Methods in Studies in Human History,” in Natural Experiments of History, ed. Jared Diamond and James A. Robinson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 272.

(4.) Richard H. Steckel, “What Can Be Learned from Skeletons That Might Interest Economists, Historians and Other Social Scientists?” (National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 9519, February 2003), 1.

(p.251) (5.) Lourdes Márquez and Andrés del Ángel, “Height Among Prehispanic Maya of the Yucatán Peninsula: A Reconsideration,” in Bones of the Maya: Studies of Ancient Skeletons, ed. Stephen L. Whittington and David M. Reed (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997), 60.

(6.) Kuntz Ficker, Historia económica general de México, 16.

(7.) Steckel, “Heights and Human Welfare,” 14.

(8.) David B. Ryden, “Perhaps We Can Talk: Discussant Comments for ‘Taking Stock and Moving Ahead: The Past, Present, and Future of Economics for History,’” Social Science History35, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 211.

(9.) Easterlin, Reluctant Economist, 11.