Poverty and Restrictions in Consumption: The Lived Experience of Colonia Residents.

Author:Mukherji, Jyotsna


The dire circumstances of the poor were brought out in Harrington's (1963) book, The Other America: Poverty in the United States, which described the impoverishment that was common in specific geographic areas. President Kennedy considered poverty a cause for concern and started a series of programs collectively known as The War on Poverty (Seccombe, 2000). These programs (Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and Food Stamps) were effective and brought down the overall poverty rates to 12.6% in 1970. Since then there has not been much change in poverty levels and, currently, the poverty level is 11.8% of the overall population with Blacks at 23.6%, and Hispanics at 22.8% (U.S. Census Bureau, Poverty: 1999 Highlights). Thus, despite a robust economy and low unemployment and inflation rates, poverty rates are slightly less than what they were in the 70s. The study of poverty therefore remains a critical issue as we move into another century (Seccombe, 2000).


Colonias means a neighborhood or community in the Spanish language. Colonias are defined as unincorporated subdivisions, built outside city limits, on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border (http://www.hud.gov/texcol.html). Many Colonias have emerged in rural areas without formally sanctioned local governance and the collective services that local government customarily provides. Some Colonias may be entire border communities while others are comprised of neighborhoods within incorporate communities. Colonias typically have high rates of poverty, and the residents lack education, and job skills and this makes it difficult for the people to get jobs that help pay for roads, sanitary water and sewer systems, decent housing, street lighting and other services (http://www.hud.gov/texcol.html).

According to the Texas Secretary of State website, there are 2,294 Colonias with approximately 400,000 residents living in them. Residents are predominantly Hispanic (64.4%) and young. 85% of those residents under 18 were born in the United States. Median annual income is estimated at $7,000-$11,000 per household and the typical family size is 5-6 people. Education levels are quite low and school dropout rates are high.

The rise of the Colonias can be traced to population growth in Northern Mexico. Among the many factors for this growth are the NAFTA agreement and the rise of the maquiladoras. As of 2010, the combined population of the border Mexican and US counties is approximately 14.6 million (Wilson Center, www.wilsoncenter.org/mexico). This dramatic rise in population has created a number of serious urban problems, including a lack of drinking water, inadequate sewage services, substandard housing,

insufficient garbage disposal, and air and water pollution, as well as diverse negative environmental impacts outside city boundaries. In short, these urban problems have created slum like conditions reminiscent of poor countries, but the irony is that they are now located within the U.S., an industrialized country with a powerful economy and high standard of living.

The research issue (impoverished consumer behavior of Colonia residents) is important not only for the border states, but also for the country since it exposes living conditions existing within an overall affluent society. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) defines human development as the process of enlarging people's choices. This is achieved by expanding human capabilities and functioning. The three basic capabilities-measured by the human development index (HDI) are for people to lead long and healthy lives, to be knowledgeable, and to have access to the resources needed for a decent standard of living. (Boer, 1998). The theme of UNDP's ninth Human Development Report (HDR) is 'consumption from a human development perspective'. It contains an analysis of the links between growth, consumption, poverty, inequality, and the environment. The report states that, worldwide, poor people in particular suffer from environmental damage. They are often forced to live on the edge: more than 500 million poor people live on marginal lands and 132 million in water-stressed areas. They are in particular hurt by local environmental damage, such as water pollution, air pollution, and waste disposal, but also vulnerable to cross border problems, such as acid rain and global warming. Poverty, along with ever-increasing wealth inflicts damage to the environment. Lacking alternatives, the poor are often forced to exhaust resources in order to survive (Boer, 1998).

The Texas Colonias exhibit all the effects of environmental damage. Most Colonias have dilapidated homes and lack potable water and sewer and drainage systems. These conditions make many Colonias an ideal place for the proliferation of disease. On the U.S. side of the border, the rate of hepatitis A occurs at a rate three times the national average. According to the Texas Border Health Office, for instance, the hepatitis A rate for border counties in 1995 was about three times the state average (50.3 per 100,000 inhabitants versus 16.1/100,000). Tuberculosis is also a major problem on both sides of the border. In 1995, the rate of reported TB cases in the four U.S. border states was 13.3/100,000, compared to a rate of 8.7 elsewhere in the country. High rates of occurrence of vaccine-preventable diseases are another cause for concern. The rate for measles on the U.S. side, for example, is 50 cases per 100,000 people, versus a U.S. national average of 11. And the...

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