Colombia - Poverty and wealth

Colombia is neither a poor nor a rich country. Income per person was by year 1999 roughly equal to the world average. According to the Andean Community, GDP per capita was US$1,487 in 1993, and rose to US$2,090 by 1995. The CIA's World Factbook estimates income per capita for 1999 at US$6,200. More interesting, however, are changes over time. By 1980 income per capita was about 108 percent higher than in 1950, with most of the growth having occurred between 1969-1979 when it increased by 50 percent. During the 1980s economic growth declined significantly, but income per capita managed a modest percent increase given a population growth slowdown.

Income distribution has also shown important changes during the last fifty years. Total income inequality peaked in the 1960s. Later on, when education levels improved drastically and the relative income of agricultural workers improved somewhat, inequalities in income levels became less extreme. Among the poorest workers, the picture is also positive. In Political Economy and Illegal Drugs in Colombia, Francisco Thoumi sums up the trends this way: "Based on a constant poverty line, the incidence of poverty has declined continuously during the fifty-year period. A head-count index shows that three-fourths of the population was poor in 1938, half in the mid-1960s, and one-fourth in the late 1980s. The poor declined from 70.5 percent of the country's population in 1973 to 45.6 percent in 1985, while the extreme poor declined from 44.9 to 22.8 percent." All the changes notwithstanding, according to the ANIF, Colombia's income

GDP per Capita (US$)
Country 1975 1980 1985 1990 1998
Colombia 1,612 1,868 1,875 2,119 2,392
United States 19,364 21,529 23,200 25,363 29,683
Brazil 3,464 4,253 4,039 4,078 4,509
Ecuador 1,301 1,547 1,504 1,475 1,562
SOURCE: United Nations. Human Development Report 2000; Trends in human development and per capita income.

Distribution of Income or Consumption by Percentage
Share: Colombia
Lowest 10% 1.1
Lowest 20% 3.0
Second 20% 6.6
Third 20% 11.1
Fourth 20% 18.4
Highest 20% 60.9
Highest 10% 46.1
Survey year: 1996
Note: This information refers to income shares by percentiles of the population and is ranked by per capita income.
SOURCE: 2000 World Development Indicators [CD-ROM].

inequality is still one of the highest in Latin America, and deteriorated greatly between 1997 and 2000, particularly in the urban areas. Rural GDP is only 50 percent of that of urban areas.

Education has also improved substantially in the last forty years. According to Thoumi, in 1951 "44 percent of the population was illiterate [and] in 1955 it was estimated that only 57 percent of 7 to 12-year-olds were enrolled in elementary schools. Under state control, elementary school enrollment … reached nearly 100 percent by 1970. Increases in high school and college enrollments have also been substantial. In 1960 high school enrollment was only 11.9 percent, while college enrollment was only 1.8 percent. By 1980 these rates had increased to 44 and 10.6 percent respectively, the latter achieving 28 percent by 1997."

In health care, Colombia also shows continuous improvement. First of all, the control of tropical diseases like malaria in the countryside and improvement in sewage systems in the cities strongly contributed to a diminishing trend in infant mortality rates (from 123.3 for each 1,000 new births in the early 1950s to 48.6 by the end of the 1980s, and 23 by the year 2000). Life expectancy has risen in Colombia; by the end of the 1980s the figure stood at 68 years, and reached 70 years in 2000. This is a far cry from the early 1950s, when the average was barely 50 years. A contributing trend has been the construction of a health care network for the growing urban population. A pension system created in 1993 allows access to both public and privately-funded health care for all employees. This program has both taken the pressure off of the public health system and has supplemented it, leading to a net improvement in the quality of health facilities in the country.

The quality of housing has also improved. According to data quoted by Thoumi from the 1951 census, "52.7 percent of the housing units had earth floors and 90.3 percent had walls made of 'precarious' materials. By the 1985 census these percentages had dropped to 17.1 and 24.4 respectively. Similarly, in 1951 only 28.8 percent of the units had running water, 25.8 percent had electricity, and 32.4 percent had sewage or septic tanks. By 1985 these figures had increased to 69.7, 78.2, and 77 percent respectively. In urban areas … these percentages were much higher: 89.8, 95, and 93.6 respectively."

While the physical standard of living has improved, the country has actually become less livable. Colombians today enjoy better housing, health services, and education; they own cars, telephones, and have greater access to information about their country and the world. They are more broadly traveled and they have more material goods than in the past. But many fundamental aspects of the quality of life, such as physical security and property protection, have deteriorated sharply due to the increase in political and criminal violence associated with both guerrilla terrorism and the narcotics war. According to ANIF, life expectancy among male Colombians dropped 3 to 4 years between 1994 and 1997 largely due to the rise in violence, both political and criminal.

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