In a promising sign of economic mobility across generations, access to education has grown leaps and bounds in Latin America and the Caribbean in recent decades, more so, in fact, than any other region. Today more children are going to school for a longer time – and are therefore more educated and prone to have better incomes – than their parents before them.
Yet this apparent progress falls flat within the context of society and the generation within which they live. Children born to the least educated parents in Latin America remain significantly more likely to become the least educated among their peers.
What is the key reason for this unique situation? In short: inequality.
In recent decades, more students, regardless of their socioeconomic background, have gained access to an education. But the quality of that education remains poor, particularly for those at the bottom of the social ladder and thus their chances to move up are also poor.
In an ideal world, where all children have the same opportunities, they should all have a chance to improve their socioeconomic situation, regardless of their initial status. But in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to new World Bank research released last week to mark End Poverty Day, their chance to climb in most countries in the region is significantly lower than for children in other regions.
The one exception is Costa Rica. Per our new data, Costa Rica is the only Latin American and Caribbean country among the top performers in the so-called “relative mobility,” which measures the extent to which someone’s educational level is independent of her parents’.
That means that Costa Rican children are not only better educated than their parents but also have a similar chance to their richer peers to improve their quality of life.
Here it is important to put our new findings in perspective. Latin America and the Caribbean saw a tremendous social transformation since the turn of the century. In fact, during the commodity boom of 2003-2013, the region was able to cut extreme poverty by half and to increase the ranks of the middle class to the point of becoming, for the first time, a larger segment than the poor.
Our concern now, however, is that such gains have stalled since 2015. Poverty and inequality are no longer decreasing. And while it is testament to the efforts of policy makers in the region that these gains have not been reverted, it is crucial to understand what is needed to consolidate them.
Our new database sheds some important light on that front. Two important factors emerge as key reasons behind the lack of more social mobility among poor students: their income and ethnic backgrounds.
While primary school attendance is nearly universal across the region, salient differences remain in early and later years. Among three-year-old children, only half of those in the poorest households attend school. In the richest households, that share is 90 percent. Meanwhile, 20 percent of 21-year-olds in the poorest households attend school, while the corresponding share in rich households is three times larger.
Another barrier to consolidating our region’s social transformation is the situation faced by marginalized groups, including indigenous communities. According to our research, higher poverty rates translate into lower access to schooling for indigenous children.
Nevertheless, there are some positive news in the region’s educational attainment. Socioeconomic status may be making less of a difference when it comes to learning. In the latest results from the international test of educational quality, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the effect of the socioeconomic characteristics of a student on her PISA test scores, while still higher than the average, it fell more for Latin American countries than for others.
When it comes to social mobility, Latin America and the Caribbean has made significant gains in recent years. At the same time, we have to focus our efforts in helping those less fortunate. Only then will our region be able to consolidate the social gains we have achieved and make more progress in reducing poverty and inequality.
Jorge Familiar is World Bank Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean.