Stephen Franklin is a former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.
OAXACA, MEXICO — The night is long and lonely and taxi driver Fernando has no choice but to endlessly troll the streets. It is the only way he can earn a living, driving from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. seven nights a week, and even then it’s barely enough to get by. “It is difficult. The salaries are low. There is not enough work. And everything is more expensive,” says the middle-aged driver as he cruises the streets of this historic southern Mexican city.
The latest figures about poverty and Mexican workers’ fate show that he understands the nation’s financial reality as well as any economist. The ranks of Mexico’s poor grew from 48.8 to 52 million between 2008 and 2010, according to figures recently released by the National Council for Social Development Policy, a federally funded agency. That meant about 46 percent of more than 112 million Mexicans were living in poverty in 2010. The government says someone is poor if they earn less than $181 a month in an urban area, and $113 in a rural area.
But the growth in poverty was uneven, according to news reports. Much of the increase was spread across large cities and in the northern states. And Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest states, was one of the five states with the greatest increases in poverty.
What caused the upward spiral in despair?
Unemployment, low wages and rising food costs are the answers offered by most experts.
The growing poverty, experts add, is a reason for a number of problems such as high dropout rates among youths, and many youngsters’ northward flight to the United States in search of work.
A recent study pointed to poverty as a major reason why youths between 15 and 29 years old accounted for more than two thirds of the 660,000 Mexicans who left the country in 2011. The report was produced by a research arm of the PRI, which had ruled Mexico for seven decades and is hoping to win back the Mexican presidency this year. It was based upon figures from the Mexican Ministry of Education, according to the daily newspaper LaJornada.
Backing up the point that low-wage jobs are a growing dilemma and disruptive force for the economy is another report from the Mexican Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare.
It showed that the country lost 257,000 higher-paying jobs in 2011 while it picked up 625,000 jobs barely paying above the minimum wage, according to the daily newspaper Mileno. The minimum wage for 2012 is 63 pesos (about $4.80) a day in the Mexico City area, a rate slightly higher than elsewhere in the country.
But these low-paid workers are not in the worst shape, the article noted. There were about 5 million workers in Mexico last year who did not receive a salary. They get just enough money to survive.
Driving a taxi on the nightshift gives Fernando enough to support his family of five. But it is barely enough to pay the costs of his 20-year-old who is in the local university or to buy all the things needed for a two-year-old.
He came back to Mexico not too long from Atlanta, Ga., where he had lived for a handful of years, working as a welder and earning $18 an hour. He lived without papers and didn’t mind the dangers he faced. The money was worth the risks.
What brought him home was his wife’s hunger to be close to family, a desire he easily understands. But he also understands the difference in his life style and the pain he feels for what more he wants for himself and his family.
And so, as he drives across the cobblestones and then the broad avenues, he wonders aloud about going back north. There’s not the slightest fear in his voice of what that could mean. There’s only the memory of doing better.
“We’ll see. This is so hard,” he says.