An article from last year (that I mentioned in my 'Prices in Colombia' post) gives an idea of what is normal here in terms of earnings. Over half of Colombians earn the minimum wage (currently at $644.350 pesos per month) and the ILO (International Labour Organisation) put Colombia within the 20 countries with the worst minimum wage in the world, meaning that relatively speaking, it is not enough to live on. This is ignoring the 55% of the urban workforce who work in the informal sector earning much less and do not have a 'salary' as such, so may not be counted. During Uribe's presidency, Colombia was one of only 3 countries in the world whose increased GDP did not reflect an increase in real wages. Where does this money go then? Well, Colombia has few elites pocketing most of the country's wealth and this goes hand in hand with high levels of corruption and land-grabbing. For example, 1.1% of landowners control over 55% of the land and cities such as Cali are crumbling under the effect of the violence and forced migration that are direct results of this elitism, making the divide between rich and poor wider and wider.
As in many countries, being poor in Cali is associated with being at the bottom of the class hierarchy and the strata system in Colombia is a structural expression of this inequality. In Cali and Colombia, strata is an officially implemented tool used to segregate people by socioeconomic class and cities are physically demarcated between neighbourhoods of strata 1-6. Every Colombian knows their strata and it is commonplace for people to talk about acquaintances referring to the number they belong to or have to fill out which number they are on forms. It was originally established under the guise of allowing proportionate charging of public university fees and bills such a water, where the low strata would pay less than the higher ones. However, this system simply reinforces inequality and proportionate charging would be much fairer if based on actual household income.
As explained in my post about poverty, 89% of the population lives in strata 1-3 and are living in some form of poverty. Strata in Colombia is devised by averages of the whole neighbourhood in which one lives, such as quality of the home, and access to services. Therefore, in a stratum 1 neighbourhood, there will often be strata 5 or 6 homes. For example, in the stratum 2 neighbourhood Bellavista, there are households belonging to each stratum, with 12 in stratum 1, and 14 in stratum 6, yet those in stratum 6 (the highest stratum), will benefit from the lower bills due to the very low neighbourhood average, even though they are extremely well-off. In addition to the clear design flaws in the strata system, it is actively taken advantage of as, for public university fees, for example, students can claim that they live in a low stratum neighbourhood as they can enroll using the address of a friend or relative, thus are required to pay almost no fees, yet live in the most exclusive areas. All of this further diminishes already scarce government subsidies for services and demonstrates the lack of regulation and checks making it easy to fool the system.
The inequality here is striking. Often, a £60,000+ BMW, or Porsche will overtake a horse drawn cart as if two different centuries are living side by side. Although I have traveled extensively throughout Latin America, I have never felt such huge inequality as I have in Colombia. I have been to places where more of the population live in extreme poverty but, here, the gap between the rich and the poor, or even the rich and the few middle classes is massive. In Colombia, the rich are super rich, and due to the volatile way in which much of this money is made (due to corruption, illegal activities and the general dependence of the economy on the drug trade that has knock-on effects on even legal businesses), extravagant spending is commonplace and people publicly show off their wealth. I know some teachers in private schools here (that can cost up to $2.5 million pesos a month) whose students get expensive cars and boob jobs for their 15th birthdays, have several iPhones, iPads, MacBooks and whose parents spend tens of thousands of pounds on parties. Conversely, every day I walk past homeless people who only own the clothes on their backs and drive past vast slums scattered across the mountains.
For me, inequality here is the main socioeconomic problem to address as it has wide repercussions for development and can cause psychological problems. It exacerbates a culture of competition and social divide that fuels racism and crime. I find it heartbreaking that the majority of Colombians are trying to climb such a slippery ladder and that so few manage to enjoy the wealth and opportunities that this country has to offer. The government and economic actors have a duty to the Colombian people to narrow the divide between rich and poor to create more opportunities for all.
This post ties into my race post where I touched upon inequality through a racial lens, and also to my post about poverty, which is interlinked with inequality. I will also be writing a post about how inequality interacts with violence and crime.