Local experts briefed my educational tour group on the state of El Salvador's economy. The minimum wage was about $1 an hour ($144 a month). While in the US, minimum wage is considered a starting point, most Salvadorans aspire only to minimum wage...and that's all they get.
When coffee prices crashed in the early 2000s, that crop went from providing 50 percent of the country's export earnings to about 3 percent. With legions of coffee workers suddenly unemployed, their children were hopeless and directionless. Many teens were left with little to do but roam the cities in gangs and cause better-off people to build even higher walls. The maquiladora industry (sewing clothing for the rich world corporations looking for cheap labor) moved in, and now makes up 25 percent of the local economy.
To make ends meet, most Salvadoran families struggle to send one person abroad to earn money. Seven in ten families have an immediate member in the US — about two million total. In 2005, remittances (money sent home from these expats) brought $2.5 billion into El Salvador — or 16 percent of the country's entire economy. "Refugee aid" like this is big throughout the developing world. In fact, in 2004, the total amount of money that refugees working in the rich world sent home to their families (an estimated $75 billion) was fifty percent higher than all foreign aid combined ($50 billion).
In 2001, two huge earthquakes killed over a thousand Salvadorans (in a nation of about six million people). They destroyed or badly damaged a quarter of the private homes in the country, leaving 1.5 million homeless. Of course, in a big shake, it's the poor whose homes crumble — seismic safety is a luxury only the privileged can afford. An earthquake of the same magnitude hit my hometown of Seattle that same year, and no one died. The best those living in a shantytown can do for protection is to live in what they call "miniskirt housing" — cinderblocks for the lower half of the walls, and then light corrugated tin for the upper walls and roof. If a miniskirt house tumbles down, it won't kill you. And when it's over, you just scavenge a few two-by-fours, reassemble the frame, and nail your sheets of tin back in place.
The more I learned in El Salvador, the more appalled I was to realize how amazingly blind I was to people's daily reality just a short plane ride south of the border.
About This Entry
You are reading "The Real Meaning of "Economic Woes"", an entry posted on 30 September 2009 by Rick Steves.