Poverty During the Forties Versus Actual Poverty in Puerto Rico

An illustration of the peasantry working in the cane industry.

An illustration of the peasantry working in the cane industry.

By Edgardo Hernández Burés

Most people would say that the actual poor communities of Puerto Rico are poorer than the ones form past generations. But meaning that they do not suffer only from economic poverty, but also from mental poverty and poverty of values. Which one would you say is the poorest?

According to the 2010 Census, the GINI index of Puerto Rico, which measures the levels of wealth inequality is more than 0.471, which is relatively high in comparison with previous Census. In other words, while the average of the population has incomes under $45 thousand per year, there are local corporations, in the country that reported annual earnings of over $2 billion according to a report by the Caribbean Business newspaper issued on November 6, 2013.

Senate President Eduardo A. Bhatia said during the First Summit for the Eradication of Poverty held on October 17, 2013 in the Senate of Puerto Rico, that it is time that Puerto Rico seeks for alternatives to end poverty in the country. “What brings us here today is only one question; how are we going to manage poverty and how can we begin to eradicate it?” asked Bhatia.

Poverty and social inequality are linked to each other. What is social inequality? Dr. Doris Martinez Vizcarrondo, active member of  The Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy (REDLAD) and professor at the University of Puerto Rico – Mayagüez, explains what social inequality is, “well, people that do not have the same opportunities of development, that their human rights are not guaranteed, the right to live well, and the right to the happiness that the constitution ensures”.

Currently there is a high wealth inequality in the island, according to what was stated previously, and the government is trying to fix this problem like Bhatia said, but who are these people who are suffering from this problem?

Dr. Doris Martinez Vizcarrondo explains that a large sector of poverty today is the Dominican community, “The component of the Dominican community, as part of what the constitution of the poor areas of Puerto Rico is, it is now important because that was not seen in past generations”.

If the Dominican community is relatively new to the area, then who was that poor sector in previous generations?

Dr. Jorge Seda Prado, historian of Puerto Rico, profesor at the University of Puerto Rico – Río Piedras and at the Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola, explains that in the decade of the 40’s the poorest sector where the farmers, “the peasantry had big poor sectors during the 40‘s, a result of the deterioration of the agriculture due to the beginning of a sprawled industrialization. That industrialization did not have the capacity to absorb that many workforce.” Seda said.

James L. Dietz, author of “Economic History of Puerto Rico”, explains in his book that the shift from an agricultural economy to an industrial one and from a rural society to a urban society was rapid.

Even though they are two different sectors, and two different situations, they share something in common, which is the area in where they live.

“Currently the poorest sectors of Puerto Rico are found in the metropolitan area. In Santurce there are many sectors like Barrio Obrero, Gandul, among others that are very poor. All of that is a poor area” said Martinez Vizcarrondo. Nowadays that area is occupied by the Dominican community. “During the decades of the 40’s and 50’s, that area occupied by the Dominican community, in Santurce was a smallholding for the migration of the rural area to the urban area. Many farmers and workforce that belonged to the government were moved to that sector so they could live there and develop that piece of land” Doris added.

Seda Prado explains that in the 40’s there were many ghettos that were very poor, mostly in the metropolitan area, “el fanguito, la Perla, Caimito, etc. those ghettos where created outside of the urban part of the city. In the urban part there were the big entrepreneurs, which was a small sector of the population”. These ghettos were mainly constituted by the peasantry that left the rural area in search of job opportunities.

Like Bhatia said, there is no current program that is dealing with poverty. Unlike in the 40’s that there was Operation Bootstrap, “Operation Bootstrap improved the acquisitive capacity of the sectors that were acquitted by it, but Muñoz Marín didn’t really resolved the poverty issue with Operation Bootstrap, he exported it. The new poor sector was richer than the old poor sector.” Seda explains. The doctor explains that at least Operation Bootstrap provoked social mobility, “the education provoked it, and the fact that the people were able to recognize that the education is the medium for social mobility” he added.

Dr. Martinez Vizcarrondo explains that today people do not see the school as an element for social mobility and that does not affect only the economic poverty, “unfortunately, the current problem of today is not just economic poverty like in the 40‘s, there are also many types of poverty today, like mental poverty and the poverty of values, there is no respect for life these days”. She says that back then the poverty did not have economic resources but they did had their values very well established. “Those are the same ones that later on become the middle working class, the 90 percent of today’s middle working class, people who are educated, originates from the poverty.”

We have two different generations, different panoramas, different economic situations, but it’s still the same problem unfortunately. How can you, as a good citizen of Puerto Rico, contribute to fix this problem and make the world a better place?


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