The country’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto vows to raise 15 million people from poverty in the next six years by tripling economic growth, providing loans to small and medium businesses, and tearing down the walls that have insulated monopolies and the elite from competition.
It is an ambitious agenda, one that his predecessor, Felipe Calderon, never achieved in a term during which poverty rose as the 2009 global economic crisis took its toll, despite soaring public spending on social welfare programs.
Gains and pains
Mexico’s struggle to secure a better future is plain to see in edge cities such as Chalco, no longer a slum but not quite the suburbs, where ordinary families tell of how hard it is to make it in Mexico.
The Chalco Valley, once the shoreline of a shallow lake fished by Aztec vassals, was a sleepy dairy pasture for most of the 20th century. After the devastating Mexico City earthquake of 1985, refugees from the capital turned a backwater into a gritty, mercantile metropolis.
Now the Chalco Valley is home to 850,000 residents and is filled with new schools, clinics and playgrounds built by the government, with Wal-Marts and AutoZones rising from cement-block barrios that 25 years ago lacked running water.
“In 1976, there were two primary schools in Chalco,” said Mayor Esteban Hernandez. “Today, we have 380 schools, including six universities.”
The mayor said education, more than anything else, has changed the fortunes of Mexico. “If the kids can go to school,” Hernandez said, “then the mother can work, and the family income rises, and the child gets an education.”
Mexico can afford to educate more children because its population is no longer exploding. The nation’s fertility rate in the 1960s was seven children per mother; today, it is two per mother.
Lourdes Huesca came from a family of 10 siblings. But she and her husband have only three sons, “and to me, that’s a lot,” she said.
“I told my sons they were going to get an education,” Huesca said.
All three went to college.
Her youngest is enrolled at the National Polytechnic Institute, the “MIT of Mexico,” where tuition, books and bus fare cost the family about $200 a semester. He wants to be a computer engineer.
“Once my third son finishes his studies,” Huesca said, “my life will be complete.”
Her children are the exception.
Nearly all Mexican children ages 5 to 14 are in school, a tremendous advance. But only 20 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds have gotten a college education, compared with 37 percent across other OECD countries.