- Measuring Up: A History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1850–1950 by Moramay López-Alonso
Moramay López-Alonso’s first book gives us a window onto Mexico in 1950: on the cusp of rapid economic growth—the so-called “Mexican miracle”—but also beset with extensive poverty and persistent inequalities. This view is of course nothing new. What is new here are the innovative and dramatic ways in which López-Alonso pulls back the curtain on the history of poverty and inequality over the preceding century.
Until now, we have only had anecdotal evidence: even extant wage series, little improved since those published in by El Colegio de México in Estadísticas económicas del Porfiriato (1960) a half century ago, provide problematic and very limited clues. Incomes for the majority depended not on formal, regular wages but on some mixture of irregular employment, payment-in-kind, and household survival strategies. López Alonso bypasses these challenges in one leap by examining adult heights of thousands of Mexicans from across the social spectrum.
Average adult height across population groups provides a powerful indicator of biological standards of living because stature is a function of the interaction between genetics and childhood nutrition. Nutrition during crucial childhood growth periods, coupled with the degree of children’s exposure to disease and stress, shapes whether individuals attain their genetic potential. Multiple studies have shown that average adult heights in populations correlate closely with other indicators of welfare, confirming their utility, arguably, as a better measure of welfare and living standards than average wages, income, or wealth. In the middle section of her book, López-Alonso lays out these methodological issues and her evidence, drawn from over 10,000 soldiers’ records and over 20,000 passport records—an astounding research endeavor in itself.
This evidence points toward a relatively simply but powerfully compelling story, once the research data is run through complex statistical procedures. Most Mexicans born in the 1890s were up to three centimeters shorter than their compatriots had been in the 1850s. They received less nutrition in childhood, a clear indicator that living standards for the majority had declined. Average adult heights would level off briefly for those born between 1890 and 1910 before falling again during the Revolution. Only those relatively few Mexicans who obtained passports—primarily drawn from the elite and middle class—saw their heights (and thus living standards) increase gradually between 1850 and 1910. Only after 1930 would heights and welfare for the majority begin to rise. By 1950, Mexicans had barely regained the stature of their forbears born in the 1850s. In other words, we have here vivid testimony to the starkly unequal distribution [End Page 746] of the benefits of Porfirian growth. Most Mexicans saw no net increase in their living standards over this full century.
López-Alonso uses her data to dig out further insights into the unequal distribution of welfare, such as the experience of women and regional disparities between north and south. Equally important, she frames her discussion of the quantitative data on stature and living standards with two robust sections that examine more qualitative material. The first section of the book lays out the history of welfare institutions from the late colony into the mid twentieth century, a story in three parts: the dominant role of Church and charity in the early national period, the ways in which liberal reforms undermined and weakened the Church’s ability to maintain welfare support in the mid eighteenth century, and the slow growth of private organizations before the Revolution, and public policy after. Only after 1930 did the state provide sufficient support to improve average welfare. The third section of the book turns to diet and nutrition—the fundamental determinants of adult stature. Presenting new data on the nutritional implications of Mexicans’ diets at different social levels, López-Alonso presents a convincing portrait of widespread malnutrition for many urban and rural Mexicans through...