San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Inequality and Poverty Mark the Times in C.R.

At the bottom of the painting on the cover of this year’s State of the Nation report, five school children play soccer on a riverbank between homes built of cinderblocks and tin. Behind them, a woman hangs laundry on a clothesline hooked to the side of her rickety house and strung over the river.

A dirt road bumps and stumbles down a hillside into the dim, grassless riverside shantytown.

Above, in view, but out of the reach of the children and neighbors in the foreground, modern buildings soar, and lush, green trees envelop the gleaming broad-shouldered edifices. The city landscape appears sophisticated and civilized, and, perhaps, is a realm that the five school children will never understand.

“They see the development, the world where a few people in this country live, but they see it as something unreachable, something that is way above in another world,” said Héctor Gamboa, the artist who designed this year’s cover.

Gamboa was once married to a biologist who studied river basins, and who was often required to travel into the small, under-the-bridge communities where flimsy shacks are stacked one on top of the other. Accompanying his wife, he learned about the problem of marginalization first-hand.

“That’s where the poor people live, around the river, and the rich live above on higher ground,” he said. “This is something that we see everyday. It’s an image we have all memorized and, in Costa Rica, it’s the archetypal image of inequality.”

The State of the Nation 2009, an independent report released last week, touches on various aspects of Costa Rican life, from social and environmental issues to politics and the economy.

It discusses a recession that “didn’t have the traumatic effects that were expected” and details a free trade agreement with the United States that “didn’t drag Costa Rican society and it’s constitutionality into an abyss, nor did it bring the benefits that it promised.”

It describes a calm presidential electoral period and a natural environment whose water resources are at high risk of contamination.

Startling Inequality

But perhaps among the annual report’s more startling revelations is the issue encapsulated in Gamboa’s cover design. Poverty and inequality are on the rise as Costa Rica’s rich are getting richer and its poor poorer.

According to State of the Nation 2009, which analyzed human development trends in the country from 2009 through the first quarter of 2010, Costa Rica has reached its most unequal point in at least 20 years, recording a Gini Coefficient of 0.437. The Gini Coefficient measures disparity in income in a population on a scale of zero to one, with zero marking complete equality.

The report, released this month, highlights a startling gap between the rich and the poor.

In 2009, Costa Rica’s richest households – the top 10 percent – saw an 11.6 percent growth in income while the poorest homes – the bottom 10 percent – experienced a 6.9 percent drop.

Poverty, which grew by one percent from 2007 to 2008, rose again by 0.8 percent in 2009, engulfing 18.5 percent of Costa Rican homes. 

“The balance in 2009 in these areas is negative,” the report concludes, calling inequality and poverty two “critical areas” the country must address. “In Costa Rica, inequality in the distribution of income continues to expand … and there have been no advances in the reduction of poverty.”

During 2009, Costa Rica’s richest 10 percent earned nearly 19 times what the country’s lowest tenth took home – the first group with an average monthly income of 1.5 million ($2,928) compared to 79,300 ($154) for those at the bottom.

The explanations for the widening gap are far-reaching, and the great recession, while taking a lesser toll than expected, facilitated slips back into poverty and appears to have aided the recent spike in inequality.

Those with the lowest level of education suffered the most from unemployment in recent years.

Informal and unskilled laborers, along with farmers – two classes that make up part of the bottom tenth of Costa Rica’s income scale – and which are largely made up of workers who haven’t finished high school, lost more than 26,000 jobs in 2009.

Meanwhile, the formal work sector for skilled employees, many of whom have high school degrees – an area that includes  technicians, department chiefs and administrative and government positions – hired more than 24,000 people in 2009.

For Miguel Gutiérrez, the director of the State of the Nation, the relationship between education and inequality is simple.

“When you initiate progress in education, but that education doesn’t include everyone, you run the risk of generating growing levels of inequality,” he said at a press conference last week.

The tendency in Costa Rica, as it attempts to catch up to the developed world, to move toward a more formal and skilled labor market, has benefited those with access to education, providing them with advantages and opportunities that are inaccessible to the country’s less fortunate. 

In Gamboa’s painting, he pointed out, the five children are dressed in school uniforms, a sign of Costa Rica’s generally high levels of education and an indication that they live with the possibility of reaching the world above. And, in fact, according to the 2009 report, school attendance and retention rates are up compared to recent years.

But for now, the children still live, with their elders, along the margins of the river.

“They have hope in ignorance. They are happy and they are playing and in a certain way this is a metaphor for the Costa Rican people. We live at a very different pace than the developed world. There, people live saving money, counting interest rates. In the Tico world that is very strange behavior. We live apart from many of these things, and there are real threats in this. The world below, the world by the margins of the river, is extremely vulnerable. If the river grows, it will take everything with it.”

The State of the Nation Report is available in Spanish at bookstores, or visit the website

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