Social Mobility in Bolivia is finally improving – and now I can prove it!

Back in 2006, I published a newsletter postulating that “Social Mobility in Bolivia is Finally Improving!” The article was based on casual observations (mostly Evo Morales becoming the President of Bolivia and a former maid becoming the Minister of Justice). Recently, however, I have made a formal, quantitative estimation of the changes in social mobility in all of Bolivia between 1997 and 2007, and the results are nothing short of spectacular! (1).

Social Mobility is an elusive concept that is difficult to estimate quantitatively, but a convenient methodology has been developed to estimate a Social Mobility Index based on information commonly available in standard household surveys. The methodology is based on the simple idea that social mobility is low if family background is important for a child’s future, while social mobility is high if all children have equal opportunities despite different family backgrounds (1).

Figure 1 summarizes the changes in the Social Mobility Index between 1997 and 2007 for all teenagers in Bolivia. There is a very important and statistically significant increase in social mobility, which brings us from one of the lowest levels in Latin America in 1997 to a very high level in 2007 (1).

Figure 1: Changes in the Social Mobility Index for different groups
of teenagers in Bolivia, 1997-2007 (with 95% confidence intervals).
Source: Andersen (2009).

An analysis by sub-groups indicates that it is the improvements in mobility among indigenous and non-indigenous girls that are responsible for this improvement, while the improvements among young males are not statistically significant (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Changes in the Social Mobility Index for different groups of teenagers in Bolivia,
1997-2007 (with 95% confidence intervals).
Source: Andersen (2009).

This improvement is very good news, as low social mobility in Bolivia has for centuries constituted a formidable barrier to development, resulting in high and persistent poverty rates and low economic growth (e.g. Andersen, 2001 (2); Mercado et al, 2002 (3); Andersen, 2003 (4); Azevedo & Bouillon, 2009 (5)).

Some of the improvement in social mobility is likely dueto a change in perceptions about social mobility. Rural, indigenous teenagers (especially girls) frequently dropped out of school in the past because they did not perceive any opportunities for taking advantage of formal schooling. Now, on the other hand, they see people of similarly modest backgrounds reaching very high and prestigious positions. Such real life examples of social mobility can cause mental barriers to tumble down, and motivate teenagers to study, work and try to improve their lot. And simply by trying, they will dramatically improve their possibilities of succeeding, as well as contribute to the economic development of the country.

But part of the improvement is also due to the enormous efforts made by both the current and previous governments, with help from the international cooperation, to increase the supply of education facilities and to reduce obstacles against school attendance. The benefits of all these investments in education are finally, thankfully, beginning to show, and it looks like Bolivia may have finally escaped the low mobility – low growth trap and is heading for a high mobility – high growth equilibrium.

This constitutes a profound and very important structural change. Perhaps I am an incurable optimist, but it might just be the change necessary to take Bolivia out of the poverty trap where it has been stuck for so long. It is certainly the biggest and most important step forward I have ever seen in any society in such a short time.

What does the improving social mobility mean for Bolivia and Latin America? Leave your thoughts below.

Lykke Andersen is the Director of the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD.

(1) See Andersen, L. E. (2009) “Social Mobility in Bolivia is Finally Improving!” Development Research Working Paper No. 16/2009″ Institute for Advanced Development Studies, La Paz, December. (The paper was prepared as a thesis for admittance into the Bolivian Academy of Economic Sciences, and presented at the ceremony of incorporation on the 18th of December, 2009 at the Catholic University of Bolivia).
(2) “Social Mobility in Latin America.” Institute for Socio-Economic Research, Universidad Católica Boliviana. Working Paper No. 03/2000.
(3) Mercado, A. F., L. E. Andersen, O. Nina & M. Medinaceli (2002) “Movilidad Social: Clave para el Desarrollo.” Programa de Investigación Estratégica en Bolivia (PIEB) – Instituto de Investigaciones Socio-Económicas (IISEC), Universidad Católica Boliviana, La Paz.
(4) Andersen, L. E. (2003) “Social Mobility in Latin America: Links with Adolescent Schooling” in Duryea, S., A. Cox-Edwards & M. Ureta (eds.) Critical Decisions at a Critical Age: Adolescents and Young Adults in Latin America. Washington D.C.: Inter-American Development Bank. Chapter 6, pp. 219-247.
(5) Azevedo, V. & C. P. Bouillon (2009) “Social Mobility in Latin America: A Review of Existing Evidence. Inter-American Development Bank, August 2009.


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