This reduction in poverty results from AMLO’s labor-friendly policies, his historic public investment in the poorest regions of the country, and an increased minimum wage. The government also instituted programs to support rural workers and universal social programs, such as a pension for senior citizens. AMLO’s critics have tried to claim that poverty alleviation is due to everything but government policies, a claim that is intellectually dishonest at best.
But even among those who admit AMLO’s shift in policy is indeed responsible for lifting the poor, some have attacked him for implementing universal rather than conditional social programs that have work or other requirements or are means-tested (such as an income cut-off). For example, Bloomberg’s Eduardo Porter criticizes AMLO’s universal social programs, feeding the reader cherry-picked studies about the efficacy of conditional programs over universal ones. He sees Mexico’s experience as proof — but as the data shows, when we compare AMLO and Peña-Nieto’s record, these conditional and means-tested programs, firmly rooted in neoliberal orthodoxy, had a limited effect.
The superiority of a universal approach is backed up by research. Stephen Kidd, Senior Social Policy Specialist at Development Pathways, wrote, “From a technical perspective there really is no argument: universal provision is vastly superior in reaching those living in poverty and in reducing both poverty and inequality.”
In 2015, the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) reported that governments throughout the region have moved away from the “structural adjustment policies” that emerged in the region during the heyday of neoliberalism, and that demanded cuts in social spending.
They now prioritize a “rights-based” approach to social protection that aims to achieve universality. Increased social mobilizations and the election of leftist and progressive governments generated this shift, and the shift stands in stark contrast to trends in the Global North, where politicians and policymakers have worked for decades to make it harder for the poor to get relief.
The question of implementing universal over conditional programs is not only about adopting policies that are easier to administer and that garner greater buy-in (think Medicare in the US) — but an ideological one. Peoples throughout Latin America, including México, have made their choice with the ballot. They’re saying, we survived the neoliberal era. Now we choose leaders who take a rights-based universal approach to social protection, for the good of everyone, where the poor come first.