A Nation in Transition:
The Mexican Government as a Cause and Cure
Natalie Samantha Henry

Mexico: A Transition in Progress

Mexico has undergone a significant amount of change during the twentieth century. Data collected provides evidence of a rapid population explosion in progress resulting from a relatively high and volatile birth rate until the late 1960ís and a steadily declining death rate starting early in the century. At the same time, the nation now seems to be in the middle of an urban transition. These changes, taking place largely uncontrolled, have severely taxed the nationís traditional socio-economic structure.


With these rapid developments, the nation has experienced economic growth through industrialization and investment by foreign entities that have resulted in an increasing GDP. Improvements in preventative medicine and treatment and control of disease have contributed to the decline in mortality. At the same time that these and other benefits have been experienced, it is also important to recognize that these changes have not been without cost to the nation and its people by virtue of an unbalanced allocation of the nationís resources. This study attempts to identify some of those costs, and make recommendations for changes in governmental policy that may mediate them.

The Seeds of Transition

Population Growth. With the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920, population growth was viewed as being vital to the nation. Given the loss of life resulting from the period of warfare, the great numbers of migrants seeking safety in the U.S., the high death rate, and suffering birth rate, the nation found it difficult to support the growing needs of itsí fast growing urban and industrial centers. The governmentís answer came through policies that clearly encouraged large families. Measures undertaken included, banning all advertisements promoting abortion or the use of contraceptives, structuring guaranteed worker salaries and family allowances with a bias toward greater numbers of children, rewarding mothers for the number of children they had, and providing free textbooks for all children. Policies such as this continued into the middle of the century, with the outlawing of abortions (except under specific conditions) in the thirties, and the adoption of laws promoting immigration and the institution of marriage for the purpose of increasing the birth rate.

The seventies were a period of change for the country as the government increasingly felt the pressure of supporting itsí burgeoning populous. 1974 marked a crucial shift in this dynamic, as a massive nation-wide family planning effort was undertaken providing education and public healthcare services. Simultaneously, the National Constitution was altered guaranteeing equality of men and women in the eyes of the law; specifically declared was the right of all individuals to participate in family planning. Though there had been other periods of decline in the birth rate prior to this time, the seventies marked the beginning of the first continuous decline in the birthrate, which has continued into the nineties.


At the same time that these procreative campaigns were being promoted, other governmental policies also set the stage for demographic change that would determine the course of the nationís social and economic development. This becomes important, as we begin to look at regional imbalances in the investment toward economic and social growth. It is my thesis that governmental policy was the impetus for migration patterns within the country, that has led to above-average population growth in some regions. At the same time, the governmentís shifting focus on multiple sector development has resulted in a tremendous amount of disparity among the states in relative socio-economic terms. The figure below gives the reader a sense of this inequality as reflected by a breakdown of the percentage of each stateís employed population above the age of 12 earning no more than the 1990 minimum wage. The results are zeroed at the national average of 26.53%.



A Case Study: Five States in Transition

In trying to uncover the drivers of the changes undergone by the nation, we examine data from the individual states with the assumption that clues to the drivers of this transition may be uncovered by isolating transitions within the states. Based on population statistics from 1910 to 1995, the following five Mexican regions exhibited the highest growth in population for that period: Baja California Norte, Quintana Roo, Mexico, The Federal District (not defined as a state), and Tamaulipas.

Baja California Norte. The population and subsequent urbanization of Baja California Norte came early in the century. The first big wave of Mexican settlers came during the Mexican Revolution as people sought the safety of the northern border states. At the same time, a wave of U.S. emigrants populated the surrounding area on both the U.S. and Mexican sides, seeking employment opportunities in emerging industrial endeavors. The Great Depression then pulled hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who had settled in the U.S. back across the border when many of their employment opportunities disappeared. Later, during the forties, as government attempts at agrarian reform increasingly failed, and the historic centers of industry and commerce became overcrowded, settlers in the central regions of Mexico moved northward.


The Federal District and the state of Mexico. The growth both economically and in population of the state of the Federal District and the state of Mexico has itsí origins early in Mexican history. The state of Mexico, located in the central plateau, surrounds the Federal District, where Mexico City, the capital city, is located. Settlement in the area of the capital city can be traced to the fourteenth century. Attracted to region because of itsí agreeable climate and fertile soil, early settlers soon discovered that the region was also rich in minerals. From that time to the present, Mexico City has been established as, and remains the center of culture, politics, commerce and industrialization. The surrounding regions, including the state of Mexico, have been populated largely as a result of the spillover from the capital city. People have flocked to the area to be closer to the capital city, while still others have been drawn there to get away from the crowding and unpleasantries of life in Capital City.

Early in the 1900ís the Mexican government made a concerted effort to modernize these cities, investing heavily in the roads, transportation networks, power generation facilities and water and sewage systems. The successful outcome to their efforts was in attracting many settlers including the elite of society. They brought with them, money to invest in industry. The success of this endeavor to promote economic development is a mixed one; along with prosperity through growth of industry and commerce, came uncontrolled growth of both population and industry. The nation inabilityís to develop and maintain the necessary infrastructure to deal with the situation that it promoted is an issue that today causes tremendous concern. Despite the relatively low fertility rates in the area, highly correlated with the higher levels of education, access to health care, and a higher percentage of women in the workforce, the region has experienced incredible population growth largely due to inmigration.


Quintana Roo. The influence of commerce and the service industries have been powerful forces in the population growth and urbanization of Quintana Roo. The state is on the southeastern coast of Mexico, bordered by Belize and Guatemala. Though the stateís overall population is one of the lowest among the Mexican states, itís growth since 1930 has multiplied by a factor of more than twenty-five. The stateís population growth has been attributed to a high crude fertility rate combined with a high rate of inmigration. While the government sponsored projects failed, the new colonists established small communities in the area that grew to become the urban centers of the South. Favorable environmental conditions and above average income levels have contributed to the growth of the tourist industry, which in the past twenty has had a particularly powerful impact on the small state of Quintana Roo due to the increasing popularity of Cancun. This seaside resort area is also a product of government efforts to develop the regionís economy via "planned" tourist centers; with this popularity has come investment. In 1988, the state had the highest number of corporations per 1000 persons among the states. The challenge for the Mexican government is to meet the ever growing demands of this region through investment in the stateís infrastructure and to implement effective policy to deal with the unavoidable issues associated with the increasingly urbanized populous.

Tamaulipas. Located on the northeast coast of Mexico, Tamaulipas borders Texas. As such, it is one of the states that has been particularly influenced throughout its history by its close proximity to the US-Mexican border as it has attracted migrants from the South and Central regions. Early in the century, the populace fled to the Northern regions to escape the turmoil of revolution, and Tamaulipas was no exception. At the same time, the stateís coastal location has contributed to the importance of the city of Tampico. Of the 102 ocean ports in the nation, Tampico is one of the five ports in Mexico through which 80% of Mexicoís general cargo travels. Lately by virtue of industrialization and the subsequent growth of the US-Mexican border, the state has grown as well.

Transition Through Domestic Policy

Mexicoís history is one marked by a government that has taken a strong hand in intervention as it focuses on economic development. I believe that a few key policies stand out in terms of their impact on the socio-economic transitions experienced by the country in the last century. By implementing certain programs on a regional basis, the government motivated patterns of migration that led to extreme population growth in certain regions.

Following the Mexican Revolution in the early part of the century, the Mexican government turned its attention to the colonization of itsí southern region. In 1910, the nation was still predominantly agrarian. In fact, almost 70% of itsí eligible workforce was supported by agriculture. With its sparsely distributed population, and the vast tracts of fertile forestland, the south was viewed as a potential "powerhouse" of agriculture. An added benefit of resettlement in the region would be in relieving the land pressures in the northern highlands. Thus were the origins of a government-sponsored agricultural program that for the next fifty years led to settlers relocating to the southern border areas. As a result of the various government programs, enormous tracts of previously privately held land were opened up for agriculture. It is estimated that as many as 10 million hectares were redistributed by 1960. Between 1900 and 1930, all of the states saw an increase in the percentage of the workforce employed in the agricultural sector. By 1950, the numbers of workers were still relatively high, but the rise of commerce and industry, were evidenced by a fall in the percentage of agrarian workers relative to other sectors.


Unfortunately, poor planning and the realities of farming in the tropical forests resulted in a significant number of failed settlements. The result of this was migration and subsequent growth of the population beyond the limits of the land to support it. Increasing population swelled beyond what could be sustained by traditional farming and many turned to cattle raising. Increased population growth, limited capacity of cattle ranching to absorb labor and a downturn in the market demand for their crops led settlers to other options.

Examining data for the five selected areas, we should be able to isolate the impact of these land reform programs on the population. From the chart shown, comparing the growth in the agrarian population for each of the five regions relative to the national average from 1900 to 1930, it appears that only the state of Mexico experienced above average growth in the percent of agrarian workers. Quintana Roo seems to have experienced an above average growth in the sector only between 1930 and 1950. The delayed growth of the sector in the state could be in part due to its location on the far eastern coast. That might suggest either that development by the government came later, or it was more of a spillover effect after the more central areas were already settled.

With limited land naturally appropriate for agriculture, and the increasing land pressures created by a burgeoning population, the masses were naturally drawn to the urban centers that offered employment opportunities. Beginning around 1900, both the federal and state governments made a concerted effort to encourage urban development. Investments were made in the railway system, constructing roads and waterways, and developing hydroelectric power. Unfortunately, here too the practice of unbalanced policies left their mark. As the commercial districts of Mexico City were developed to the levels rivaling any major city in Europe early in the century, the lower-income neighborhoods were left without the most basic amenities. It was these investments that by the 1950ís once again, drew the masses away from their rural settlements into the cities. The figure below shows the slight rise and stabilization of the agricultural sector and its decreasing importance as a source of income for the population. The next figure shows in detail, the growth of the various economic sectors since 1900.

As is shown below, the rate of urbanization was particularly high in Quintana Roo and Baja California Norte compared to the national average. In the absence of significant natural resources, particularly land well suited for agriculture, the development of commerce would probably be the main reason for settlement in these non-central regions. The Federal District in particular was not very much affected by the national transition, as it had led the way in terms of urban development. While the rest of the nation went through an agricultural transition during the early part of the century, the Federal District was well on its way to becoming a modern center of commerce, culture and social development.


MIgration increasingly put pressure on the northern communities that were not prepared to handle the vast numbers. Despite this, the Mexican government continued to promote population growth to feed the growing industrial sector, and continued to promote industry to feed economic development.

In 1965, the Mexican government introduced the Maquiladora program as a source of employment more stable than the seasonal jobs provided by U.S. agriculture upon which so many Mexicans depended. Concentrated primarily along the 2,000 mile U.S.-Mexican border, foreign-owned assembly and manufacturing facilities under the Maquiladora program employ approximately 950,000 people; a number that has doubled during the past five years. In May 1998 Julia Carabias, Mexicoís Minister of the Environment, Natural Resources and Fisheries estimated approximated that the over 3,200 maquiladoras in Mexico generate more than $40 billion annually in sales. Tijuana is the city hosting the greatest number of maquiladoras with 21%, followed by Ciudad Juarez with 11% and Mexicali with 5%.


Under the program, a foreign individual or business entity is allowed to establish a wholly owned operation for the assembly or manufacture of products for the purpose of export. The provisions of Mexican law also allow these operations to bring most capital equipment and machinery from abroad into Mexico duty free or "in-bond". In addition provisions are made so that temporary work permits are issued for foreign workers to function in technical, managerial or support capacities. The figure above shows the rapidly growing number of workers employed by the maquiladora sector just over a ten-year period.


A comparative study of the five states with the highest population growth also indicates the possible link to industrialization. In 1990, The Federal District, Baja California Norte, and the state of Mexico, all show a higher than average percentage of the state population employed in the manufacturing sector. Quintana Roo, in spite of being highly urbanized, is less affected by the industrialization of the nation. That is because of the greater focus on the service sector, particularly as a result of government investment in planned tourism. In 1989, the state had the highest number of hotels per capita and the highest gross revenues per capita from motels and motel services.

The Impact of Demographic Transitions in Mexico

 The movement and growth of the Mexican population as stimulated by national policy has indeed been impacted by urbanization and industrialization that has led to economic development of the country. No doubt that has led to significant benefits for the population including better healthcare that has translated into decreased infant mortality rates and increased life expectancy. However, in recent years, not unlike in other industrialized and urbanized nations, mortality rates for cancer and cardiovascular disease have been on the rise. This can be attributed to a number of factors including change of lifestyle and diet, and increased exposure to industrial emissions of substances like Sulfur Dioxide and Carbon Dioxide.

In addition, there has been a reversal in what had been a downward trend for digestive, nutritional, endocrine and immunity diseases in the nation. At the state level, there have also been increases in reported cases of infectious parasitic disease. In the most populated areas including some of the most urbanized settings, health risks have actually increased as a result of air and water pollution and unsanitary conditions. This is partly reflected by the fact that access to safe water has actually declined for the population at large since the late eighties. With its limited economic resources, the nation has failed in recent years to make enough of an investment in recent years to keep up with the basic needs of the growing population. Since the influx of industry to the border U.S.-Mexico border, the region has reportedly experienced increased incidences of diseases such as Hepatitis A and Tuberculosis, as well as elevated numbers of neural tube birth defects. At this point I have found no conclusive studies indicating that these incidences have increased on a per capita basis.


Deforestation has robbed the southern region of vast amounts of itsí tropical forest, as the still expanding rural population continues itsí struggle to support cattle-raising and agriculture. Data from 1990 indicates that over a ten year period there was a 12% decrease in forests and woodlands. This has led to soil erosion nation-wide. It was estimated in 1997 that 17% of the land was eroded. Most severe has been the condition in the semi-arid areas in the North such as The Baja Peninsula, and Sonora where farming and irrigation has eroded about 60% of the land.

From a socio-economic perspective another troublesome if not surprising trend has emerged. The national average literacy rate for ages 10 and above reported in 1990 was about 52%, lower than the reported rates of 57% and 76% for 1950 and 1970 respectively. Considering the governmentís pattern of selectively and unevenly allocating resources over the years, it may be of no surprise that though literacy has fallen in all regions, literacy remains the lowest in states such as Campeche, Chiapas and Guerrero. These are all states in the southern part of the nation which have maintained a relatively high agrarian labor force compared to the rest of the nation.

A Challenge for the Future

Mexicoís history is one marked by a government that has taken a strong hand in intervention as it builds toward economic development, but the implementation of its policies have tended to vary from highly centralized control to state and regional control. From the national level, policies have tended to be very unevenly implemented, as the government seems to have focused on "low-hanging" fruit. At the same time, in doing so, the government has failed to build up the infrastructure at a local level uniformly. As a result, when control is yielded to the local level, there are varying degrees of success as the states struggle to implement policy with varying amounts of resources or access to them.

Though growth of the population has slowed in most of the states, this does not put Mexico in the clear by any means. In itsí continuing efforts to fuel the nationís economy, the Mexican government faces a number of challenges. Findings of this study seem to confirm a linkage between government policy initiatives and the unbalanced growth of population in certain regions. In the case of all the regions studied, all experienced above average growth in the urban population. Land reform seemed to have a significant effect on the state of Mexico, and a slightly lesser effect on Quintana Roo. The move toward industrialization had its more dramatic effect in Baja California Norte, the Federal District, and Mexico. My conclusion from this data is that what was significant in the growth of these regions were the implementation of specific policies, which created an incentive for mass migration into these states.

Going forward this has significant implications for Mexico. As evidenced by data presented, the population is still undergoing transition, hopefully on its way to more stable growth. At the same time, both industrial and urban transitions are underway coming as a result of the governments latest attempts at economic development via free trade and increased industrialization. All this is taking place at a time when economic resources are limited, and the world is far more competitive. It appears that the incorporation of social development has been sacrificed in the pursuit of economic development.

Incorporate socio-economic concerns into pro-growth strategy

The governmentís pattern of public investment needs to be radically altered. Investment in the less capital intensive needs of society have never been a priority for the country, and in light of recent economic difficulties, it has been further reduced. Below is shown the breakdown of federal public investments in 1990.

The future calls for a more balanced pattern of investment in the regions. As evidenced by the above graph, even the per capita spending is highly skewed. By continuing this pattern the government only prolongs the challenges it now faces. The provision of basic healthcare and education remains a challenge still in much of the southern states. Outside of the capital city area, little investment has been made in roads, transport systems, sewage systems or water treatment facilities. Lacking these systems precludes vast numbers of people from participation in efforts of family planning and education.

While economic development of Mexico is important, economic sustainability is even more critical. In developing its economy, it would appear that the Mexican government has to a large degree ignored the issue. By investing in various sectors throughout history, the government hoped to bring growth to the country, but by prematurely reallocating those funds to other endeavors, the government reduced the likelihood that those sectors would ever be self-sustaining. Unfortunately, those sectors are what millions of people have built their lives around, and when growth of those sectors stagnate, the the population suffers along with it. It is important that going forward, the government of Mexico not repeat the mistakes of the past.


An Environmental Health Survey and Analysis: Along the Texas-Mexico Border, Texas Department of Health Survey.

"Maquiladora waste problem Growing", Lexis-Nexis No. 122; ISS: 0953-5357, IAC (SM) Newsletter Database (TM) Profitastral Ltd Haznews