Latin America’s widespread poverty and multi-dimensioned inequalities have long perplexed and provoked observers. Until recently, economic historians could not contribute much to the discussion of living standards and inequality, because quantitative evidence for earlier eras was lacking. Since the 1990s, historians, economists, and other social scientists have sought to document and analyze the historical roots of Latin America’s relatively high inequality and persistent poverty.
This edited volume with eight compelling chapters by preeminent economists and social scientists brings together some of the most important results of this work: scholarly efforts to measure and explain changes in Latin American living standards as far back as the colonial era. The recent work has focused on physical welfare, often referred to as “biological” well-being. Much of it uses novel measures, such as data on the heights or stature of children and adults (a measure of net nutrition) and the Human Development Index (HDI). Other work brings to the discussion new and more reliable measurements that can be used for comparing countries, often with unexpected and startling results.
The average heights of most human populations are highly correlated with childhood nutrition. Building on this insight, a fascinating new field of study, anthropometric history, is demonstrating that extreme economic inequalities are reflected in the differing physical statures of social classes. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for example, well-fed European aristocrats towered over their undernourished peasants. This volume reveals that even today, a shockingly high percentage of impoverished Guatemalans suffer from stunted growth, whereas Mayan immigrant children living in California grow significantly taller—suggesting that poverty, not genetics, is stunting their relatives back home. This innovative collection offers numerous surprises for conventional historians: in various periods when the urban poor were presumed to have suffered from economic austerity or authoritarian deprivation, for instance, anthropometry cannot find signs of worsening nutrition. The good news is that as a region, Latin America displays the lowest percentage of stunted growth in the developing world and has registered a dramatic drop, from 26 percent in 1980 to 13 percent in 2000.
- 350 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies
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