The U.S.-Mexico border: a half century of change

The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554
The U.S.-Mexico border: a half century of change
Joan B. Anderson∗,1
School of Business, University of San Diego, 5998 Alcala Park, San Diego, CA 92110, USA
The region surrounding the border between the U.S. and Mexico has been an area of dynamic growth
and development during the last fifty years. In this region where the U.S. and Mexico share a common
heritage, cultures and languages meet and intertwine. This paper presents a description of trends in
population and quality of life indicators: education, housing and poverty, tracing how they have grown
and changed over the last half of the 20th century. Census data from 1950 through 2000 indicate that
population has grown more rapidly in the border regions than in the nations as a whole. Educational
attainment and quality of housing has improved on both sides, but to a greater extent in the Mexican
border region. However, despite this growth, poverty rates remain too high with no clear downward
© 2003 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
1. Introduction
The almost 2000 mile border separating the United States and Mexico was created in 1848
under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican-American War. Dividing formerly Mexican territories, the border is defined by the R´ıo Grande River from Matamoros/Brownsville to Ciudad Juarez/El Paso. West of El Paso it is a line drawn in the sand. In
1853 the first man-made barriers were constructed along this border, consisting of a series of
cement obelisks to demarcate the boundary. In the 1930’s border patrol observations towers
were built, then removed in the late 1950’s when U.S. Ambassador Hill declared them an
insult to Mexico. In 1975, Congress approved the construction of chain-link fencing between
∗ Tel.: +1-619-260-4857.
E-mail address: [email protected] (J.B. Anderson). 1 This research was funded by the Transborder Institute of the University of San Diego. I wish to thank the institute
and my research assistants, Ilian Emmons, Ivonne Jimenez and Juana Purchase for very careful and accurate data
gathering efforts.
0362-3319/$ – see front matter © 2003 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
536 J.B. Anderson / The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554
the border’s two most crossed areas: San Diego-Tijuana and El Paso-Cd. Juarez. These fences,
dubbed the “tortilla curtain” amid strong negative reactions, were completed by 1978. By the
1990’s, despite the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the politics
in the U.S. of controlling immigration and illegal drug flows had augmented to the point that
chain-link fences were being replaced with double 10 ft steel fences in heavily crossed border
areas. Along with the fences, infrared cameras, increased border patrol units, and lights have
been added under the programs of Operation Gatekeeper, Operation Hold the Line and Operation Rio Grande. (Stoddard, 2001). The result has been to drive many undocumented border
crossers to more difficult terrain, increasing the death rates of these border crossers (Burr, 2001).
The region surrounding this border is a unique and dynamic region where two very different
cultures, languages and economies meet and to some extent blend. For example, there is a much
higher level of bilingualism in this region; U.S. street and city names like San Diego, El Cajon,
El Paso, Roma are in Spanish; Mexican border cities contain U.S.-styled shopping malls, discos
and monuments to Lincoln, etc. At the same time the disparity between the economies that
meet at this border is greater than for any other border in the world and the degree of tension
at a border is directly related to the amount of economic disparity. The ratio of U.S. daily
minimum wage to the Mexican border cities (Mexican zone III) daily minimum wage, based
on current exchange rates decreased from 5.19 to 1 in 1950 to 2.50 to 1 in 1975. Thereafter,
the wage ratio followed an upward trend, hitting a high of 12.35 to 1 in 1982, falling to 8.84 in
1983. By 1996, the ratio of the U.S. minimum wage to the zone III Mexican minimum wage
rose to over 14 times, falling back to between 11 and 12 times in 2002.1 Nonetheless there is
some tendency toward economic convergence at the border in that Mexican wages tend to be
higher in its Northern border region and poverty rates lower than the national average. While
on the U.S. side of the border poverty rates are higher than the national average. In fact the
border county, Starr, Texas is the poorest county in the United States.
This paper presents population and quality of life trends in the U.S. and Mexican border
regions by using county and municipio level census data for the six census years, 1950 through
2000 (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1950–2000; Instituto nacional de estad ˙ ´ıstica, geografXa
e informàtica, 1950–2000). Growth rates of the Mexican and U.S. border regions are compared
with each other and their respective national growth rates. The U.S. border region is defined as
the 25 counties that touch the border, arranged West to East in geographical order: San Diego
and Imperial counties in California; Yuma, Pima, Santa Cruz and Cochise counties in Arizona;
Hidalgo, Grant, Luna and Doña Ana in New Mexico; El Paso, Hudspeth, Culberson, Jeff Davis,
Presidio, Brewster, Terrell, Val Verde, Kinney Maverick, Webb, Zapata, Starr, Hidalgo, and
Cameron counties in Texas. The Mexican border region consists of 38 municipios: Tijuana,
Tecate and Mexicali in Baja California; San Lu´ıs del R´ıo Colorado, Puerto Peñasco, Caborca,
Altar Saric Nogales, Santa Cruz, Cananea, Naco and Agua Prieta in Sonora; Janos, Ascención, Ciudad Juarez, Guadalupe, P.G. Guerrero, Ojinaga and Manuel Benavides in Chihuahua;
Ocampo, Ciudad Acuña, Jimenez, Piedras Negras, Guerrero, Hidalgo and Nava in Coahuila;
Anahuac in Nuevo Leon; Nuevo Laredo, Guerrero, Mier, Miguel Alemán, Camargo, Gustavo
Diaz Ordaz, Reynosa, R´ıo Bravo, Valle Hermoso and Matamoros in Tamaulipas. In the 1990
census in Sonora General Plutarco E. Calles, which had been a part of Puerto Peñasco, and
in 2000 the Playas de Rosarita, formerally part of Tijuana became municipios (see the map in
Fig. 1).
J.B. Anderson / The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554 537
Fig. 1.
2. Populating the border region
The region surrounding the border has a long history. Archeological evidence suggests that
this region has been occupied for at least 10,000 years. A large number of indigenous cultures
still live along this border which in several instances divides traditional territory. Europeans
arrived in the region when Spaniards explored the lands from Florida to California (Martinez,
1988). Spanish explorers, Alonzo Pineda in 1519 and Diego Camargo in 1520, arrived and
laid claim to the territory surrounding the lower Rio Grande. Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca,
shipwrecked in 1527 on the Gulf of Mexico spent eight years walking westward across Texas
and New Mexico, perhaps as far as eastern Arizona. Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries began
making expeditions into what is now the border region in the hopes of converting indigenous to
Christianity. In 1598 Franciscans established missions in New Mexico which were destroyed
in 1680 by an Indian revolt. Jesuits started attempts to colonize in 1591. Father Eusebio Kino
began his work of exploring and establishing missions in 1687, continuing until his death in
1711. A string of missions were built in the region, some of them still operating as churches
(Morgan, 1995). The king of Spain sent Jose de Escondon to colonize El Seno Mexicano (South
Texas and Northeast Mexico). In 1749 Camargo and Reynoso were established in the lower Rio
Grande valley followed by Mier in 1753 and Laredo in 1755. Shipping lines were established
up the Rio Grande as far as Roma. By the 19th century, this relatively wild frontier along the
Rio Grande and further west that we call “the border region” was dotted with a string military
posts, railroad watering stops and missions. For all of this history, most of this arid territory
remained fairly sparsely populated until the population explosion during the last half of the
20th century.
538 J.B. Anderson / The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554
Since 1950, total U.S. and Mexican Population in the border region has grown from a sparse
2.4 million people to 12.2 million in 2000. In 1950, the Mexican border region contained
868,158 persons in the 36 Mexican municipios touching the border while in the 25 U.S. border
counties the total population was 1,517,274 almost twice as much. The 2000 Mexican census
data show that this same Mexican border region had grown to 5,877,738 an increase of 677%
during the 50 years, averaging 13.5% per year. The U.S. census data report a population
of 6,312,252 in the border region in 2000, representing a 416% increase over the 50 years,
averaging 8.3% per year. See Fig. 2a. Despite the more rapid growth rate in the Mexican border
region, there are still about half a million more people in the U.S. border region, compared to
the Mexican border region. In Fig. 2b it can be seen that the populations of the border regions
associated with the border states vary widely, the most populous being California and Baja
California and the least populous, New Mexico and Coahuila.
The rapid growth in population in the border regions of both nations has increased at a faster
rate than its respective national rate over the entire 50-year period, each region increasing its
share of the national population. In Mexico the share of national population residing in its 36
Northern border municipios, almost doubled from 3.3 to 6.0%, while in the U.S. the share in the
25 border counties doubled going from 1.0 to 2.2%. Except for the decade from 1970 to 1980,
the Mexican border region has grown faster than the U.S. border, but the growth rate in the
U.S. border region has been faster than the Mexican national growth rate. Both border regions
experienced very high growth rates during the 1950s, but by 2000, the U.S. border region’s
population growth rate had decreased to equal the Mexican population growth rate (see Fig. 3).
Growth within individual counties and municipios have varied widely over this period. The
highest single decade growth rates in the U.S. border region are for San Diego and Pima (cities
of Tucson and Nogales) counties where there was over an 85% population increase in the 10
years between 1950 and 1960. During that same decade on the Mexican side, San Lu´ıs del R´ıo
Colorado, in Sonora just south of Yuma, Arizona, holds the record, growing 209%. During
the same period Tijuana and Mexicali in Baja California, and Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua
had growth rates exceeding 100%. Some more rural counties and municipios lost population.
Three Texas counties lost more than 20% of their population during the decade of the 1950s:
Hudspeth, Jeff Davis and Presido. Terrell County has had negative population growth rates that
exceed a 10% loss in every decade of the last half of the 20th century.
Over the 50-year period growth rates have tended to decline. In the decade between 1990
and 2000, reflecting the effects of NAFTA, among other things, Municipios and counties where
population grew 50% or more include Tijuana, Tecate, Agua Prieta, Juarez and Ciudad Acuña
in Mexico, and Yuma in the United States. The fastest growing of these is Ciudad Acuña,
which grew from 56,000 to 110,000 people, almost doubling in size during the decade. On the
other hand, five municipios/counties had declining populations during the decade of the 1990s.
These include: Janos in the State of Chihuahua, Guerrero in the State of Coahuila and Guerrero
in the State of Tamaulipas in Mexico, and Terrell and Culberson counties in Texas, U.S.
Population growth affects the quality of life in both positive and negative ways. On the
positive side people reflecting on changes in their respective communities over the 50 year
period mention the advantages of paved streets; more access to education, more shopping and
entertainment centers. In Piedras Negras they talk about the change in the last 10 years of
increasing from one large shopping center to three. With competition came lower prices, more
J.B. Anderson / The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554 539 Fig. 2.
540 J.B. Anderson / The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554
Fig. 3. Population growth rates: national and border regions.
variety and better quality goods. On the negative side are the problems of noise, traffic jams,
congestion and the complaint that people in the town no longer know each other. “In the old
days when you went to the plaza for a fiesta you knew everyone. Now I only see a few people
that I know.” Alternatively, a woman in Mier, a municipio in Tamaulipas that has not grown
much, states that here people still know each other. A man from Matamoros remembers with
longing how as a child he was able to go out and hunt in the fields behind his house. Now that
land is all divided into paved streets and houses. Hunting in that area is gone.2
The rapid population growth in the border region has been mainly directed toward cities,
making both border regions predominately urban and more urban than their respective countries, as shown in Fig. 4. In 1950, while almost 60% of the Mexican population lived in rural
areas, only 35% did so in the border region.3 At that time on the U.S. side, the border region
was only slightly more urban than the nation as a whole, 32% compared to 36% nationwide.
The 50-year trend has been toward urbanization in both nations, but the border regions have
urbanized faster. By 2000 the proportion of population in rural areas was down to 8% in the
U.S. border region and 7% in the Mexican border region, while the country levels remained at
Fig. 4. Trends in % rural: national and border regions.
J.B. Anderson / The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554 541
21% for the U.S. and 25% for Mexico. In 2000, on the U.S. side, 2.8 million of the 6.3 million
border residents (44%) live in San Diego County, which is 99% urban. On the Mexican side,
of the 5.9 million border residents, 2.4 million people live in Tijuana and Juarez (also 99%
urban), representing 41% of the population. There are a few counties and municipios that have
remained 100% rural (meaning no town larger than 2500 people). In the U.S. border region
these are all in Texas and include the counties of: Hudspeth, Culberson, Jeff Davis, Terrell
and Kinney. In Mexico they include the border municipios of Saric and Santa Cruz in Sonora,
Manuel Benevides in Chihuahua, Guerrero and Hidalgo in Coahuila.
There are two major sources of population growth: natural increase and migration. The
percentage due to natural increase (the net of births and deaths) has declined nationally and in
the border regions of both countries. While the percentage of population growth due to natural
increase is higher in the Mexican than in the U.S. border region, the rate is lower in the Mexican
border region than nationally. On the other hand the national increase rate is higher in the U.S.
border region than the U.S. national rate. The percentage of population growth in the U.S.
border region due to natural increase in 1950 was 2.1% in the border region compared to 1.4%
nationally, falling to 1.1% in the border region and 0.6% nationally in 2000. In Mexico, the
percentage due to natural increase in 2000 was 2.2% in the border region and nationally, 2.8%,
down from 2.9% in 1950. One percent of the population growth in the U.S. border region in
2000 is attributed to net migration, compared to 0.7% nationally. In Mexico 2.2% of its border
region population growth was from net migration compared to a negative 0.4% nationally (i.e.,
more out than in migration).
Net migration to the border region is from other states as well as from foreign countries.
For both, internal migration from other states has been the biggest source of influx. The trends
in the sources of net migration, Fig. 5, follow very different paths in the U.S. and Mexican
border regions. In the U.S. border region the trend in the proportion of population born in other
states has gradually declined from 45% in 1960 to 29% in 2000, while in the Mexican border
region it has gradually increased from 29% in 1970 to 34% in 2000. On the other hand, the
proportion due to foreign born in the U.S. border region has increased from 11% in 1950 to
20% in 2000, while in the Mexican border region this proportion has decreased from 5 to 2.4%.
Fig. 5. Proportion born in other states and foreign born in the border regions.
542 J.B. Anderson / The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554
For both countries, the proportion of foreign born is higher on the border than for the country
as a whole: in Mexico 2% in the border region, compared to 0.4% nationally; and in the U.S.
20% compared to 11% nationally in 2000.
Many of the foreign born in the U.S. border region in this generation and previous generations
are from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. The proportion of population which is
Hispanic has increased for the U.S. as a whole and in the U.S. border region. Nationally in
1980, 6.4% were Hispanic, increasing to 12.5% in the 2000 census. In the border region, the
proportion increased from a quarter of the population in 1980 to half the population in 2000. The
Texas border region has long been heavily Hispanic. It increased from 73% Hispanic in 1980
to 85% in 2000. Three border counties, all in Texas, were more than 90% Hispanic in 2000:
Webb County (Laredo) 94.3%, Maverick, 95% and Starr (the nation’s poorest county) 97.5%.
The high proportion of Hispanic population also means a higher proportion of population
with a mother tongue other than English. In fact, the border region is an area with a much higher
proportion of bilingual speakers, than is true nationally and this proportion has been increasing.
By 2000, 45% of border region population claimed a language (mainly Spanish) other than
English to be their first language and 20% speak English less than well. This is an increase from
32% in 1980 with 14% speaking English less than well. In the Texas border region 72% do not
have English as their first language and 33% speak English less than well, suggesting 40% or
more of the population are bilingual. In the Texas counties of Maverick, Webb (Laredo) and
Starr, English is not the first language of more than 80% of the population. The high proportion
of bilingualism, rare in the rest of the U.S. adds a cultural richness to the region. As one El
Paso woman explained it in an interview: “Speaking only one language is like being vanilla
ice cream. Being bilingual is like cherry garc´ıa, and who wouldn’t prefer cherry garc´ıa?”
Another important demographic trend over this time period is that of the aging of the population. In Fig. 6, trends in the youth dependency ratio, defined as the proportion of population less
than 15 years old, too young for the labor force, relative to the population 15 and over, clearly
show a decrease, especially in Mexico. The youth dependency ratio is strongly affected by
fertility rates and infant mortality rates. A fall in infant mortality rates would by itself increase
the youth dependency ratio. A fall in fertility rates, on the other hand would decrease the youth
Fig. 6. Trends in youth dependency ratios: national and border regions.
J.B. Anderson / The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554 543
dependency ratio, all else equal. Both infant mortality rates and fertility rates have fallen in
both the U.S. and Mexico over this 50-year period. Fertility rate decreases have had the largest
effect, however, as the youth dependency ratio has fallen for both countries, but much more,
in Mexico than in the U.S. In 1950, the Mexican youth dependency ratio was 1.55 (50% more
population under 15 than over) while it was 0.37 in the U.S. Sixty percent of the population
was under 15 in Mexico in 1950, but a little over one quarter of the U.S. population was under
15. By 2000, the Mexican youth dependency ratio had decreased to 0.55, still above that of the
U.S. ratio of 0.27, but one-third of what it was in 1950. Mexico has experienced a very steady
and dramatic decrease in the ratio. In the U.S. the youth dependency ratio actually increased
between 1950 and 1960 as a result of the post-war baby boom, declining steadily since then.
The border regions’ youth dependency ratios have followed their respective national ratios very
closely. The Mexican border region tended to have a slightly lower youth dependency ratio
than the nation as a whole, while the youth dependency ratio in the U.S. border region was
higher than for the nation. The Texas and New Mexico border regions had the highest youth
dependency ratios of the U.S. border states. By 2000, the youth dependency ratio in the Texas
border region of 0.39 is not much lower than the ratios of the lowest Mexican states’ border
regions, those of Baja California and Chihuahua at 0.44.
3. Trends in the quality of life on the border: 1950 to 2000
The rapid growth in population in the border region have changed the dynamics of border
life and border interactions. To what extent has the border developed and the quality of life
improved? Is the economic growth associated with the increased population raising the quality
of life of all or is a substantial population living without their basic needs being met? In an
attempt to address these questions, this section of the paper examines trends in three indicators
of the quality of life. The first is educational attainment which plays a dual role in both enhancing enjoyment of life and increasing the productive capacity of the person. Second, is the
quality of housing. Specifically, what proportion of housing has inadequate services, lacking
plumbing and water. Third, is the proportion of the population that is in absolute poverty, as
defined by a poverty line.
3.1. Trends in education
In the global environment of the border economy, having a well-educated work force is an
essential ingredient for attracting business into the region. Training workers, even for relatively
low-skilled jobs, is faster and cheaper if the workers hired already have a good educational
background. As labor becomes more educated and hence more productive, labor income can
increase, reducing levels of poverty and improving the distribution of income.
Educational attainment, starting at very low levels in 1950, has increased dramatically in
the last half of the 20th century in the Mexican border region municipios. When long time
residents of these cities are asked about changes over this 50-year period, many remarked on
the increase in opportunities for education. For example, in San Lu´ıs del Colorado, Sonora in
1950 there was only one elementary school and no secondary schools or any higher education
544 J.B. Anderson / The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554
institutions. Now San Lu´ıs, just an hour east of Mexicali, has grown into a large town. They
have a good school system, including two universities of which they are very proud.4
From the beginning of the “development decades” of the1950s and 1960s in Mexico, the
role of education as an essential ingredient to economic development was recognized. Mexican
government expenditures on education as a percentage of the total government budget rose
from 16.9% in 1950 to 34.6% in 1970. During the debt crisis of the 1980s expenditures on
education fell to 20% of the federal budget, rising to 37.5% in 1990 and 36.6% in 2000
and 37.1% in 2001.5 During the 1950s and 1960s, Mexican development policy emphasized
rapid economic growth. It focused on expanding secondary, vocational and higher education,
including establishing 10 public universities, of which four were located in the border states:
Tamaulipas in 1950; Chihuahua in 1954; Baja California and Coahuila in 1957. Of these
the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California, located in Mexicali, with a branch in Tijuana
added, was the only one located in a municipio touching the border. In 1973 the Universidad
Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez and the Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF) in 1982 were
established on the border. These universities tended to mainly benefit the children of middle
and upper class families, but not of working class and poor families. Though having a local
university has helped many young people who could not afford to go out of town have had
access to higher education. The result has been a supply of local skilled and professional people
that are contributing to the economic development of the region (Piñera, 1999).
Starting in the 1970s with the recognition of the increased inequality in income distribution
that occurred during these two decades, the emphasis in economic development shifted to equity
and poverty alleviation. With that, educational policy shifted to primary goals of universal
access to basic education and literacy. In the border states between 1950 and 1990 average
student–teacher ratios fell from 65 to 31 in Baja California, from 40 to 30 in Sonora, 44 to 29
in Chihuahua, 45 to 28 in Couhuila, and from 43 to 28 in both Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas
(Anderson, 1996). Coverage of primary schooling has become nearly universal, but only in
1992 did Mexico expand compulsory education to include secondary school (grades 7, 8, and
9). Poorly funded public primary schools for lower income classes and good private primary
schools for upper income groups have helped maintain a segmented society. In 1996, 71% of
the poorest quintile of population has less than complete primary education and 2.2% has high
school and above. In the richest quintile, 18.2% had less than complete primary education and
54.5% had high school and above. In this group, 34% had a university education. Furthermore,
8% of children in the lowest quintile are not attending school, while 0.3 of a percent of the
richest quintile are not in school (Bracho, 2000).
To examine progress in educational attainment in the Mexican border region, Fig. 7 presents
the trends in the proportion of population 15 years and older who have more than primary
education.6 In 1960, only 7.7% all Mexicans and 10.6% in the border region had more than
a primary school (6th grade) education. By 2000, 52.6% nationally and 60% in the border
region had more than primary education. The gains in this measure of low-level educational
attainment have been sizeable over the 50-year period and greater in the border region than for
the nation as a whole. In 2000, the municipio, Mier, Tamaulipas, a little town that celebrated its
250th anniversary on March 6, 2003, had the higher percentage with more than primary school,
73.1%. The lowest was Janos, Chihuahua with only 21.7%. In fact, the only border municipio in
Chihuahua that is higher than the national average is Ciudad Juarez. In general, it is the smaller
J.B. Anderson / The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554 545
Fig. 7. Proportion of population 15+ with post-primary education: Mexico border region.
more rural municipios that have low percentages of education beyond elementary school. As
can be seen, much of the gain in post-primary education has come after 1990, very likely as a
result of the expansion of compulsory education from 6 to 10 (ninth grade plus kinder) years
in 1992. The border region as a whole went from 29% with post primary education to 60% in
the 10 years between 1990 and 2000.
The U.S., at a much higher level in terms of educational attainment than Mexico in 1950,
has also made significant gains in educational attainment over the last half of the 20th century.
Referring to Fig. 8, in 1950 only one-third of the population 25 years and older had at least a
high school degree. By 2000, four out of five had achieved that educational level. High school
education in the border region was above the national proportion in 1950 with 39% compared
to 34% of the U.S. The border region remained above the nation until 1990 when educational
attainment was 2.3% lower than the national proportion of 75.2%. In 2000, it remained under
the national proportion. The border regions’ attainment of high school and above only increased
one percent from 72.9 to 73.8% between 1990 and 2000. More troubling is that there are four
counties on the border, all in Texas, where the proportion of high school graduates was less
than half in 2000: Starr county, 35%, Maverick county, 42%, Presidio, 45% and Hudspeth
Fig. 8. U.S. national and border educational attainment.
546 J.B. Anderson / The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554
Fig. 9. U.S. and border population 25+ with less than ninth grade.
county, 46%. Hudspeth, which holds many bedroom communities, including colonias, for El
Paso, is the only border county where the proportion of adults who are high school graduates
actually fell between 1990 and 2000. For the rest the trends show continuing improvement.
Fig. 8 also shows the proportion of U.S. population 25 and over with a college degree or
above. In the U.S. as a whole in 1950, only 6% of the population had received a bachelor’s
degree or higher. With U.S. investments in higher education, including the G.I. bill instituted
after World War II, this proportion has increased to 24.4%. The border region overall has
closely followed the national trend. The county with the highest percentage in 2000 was Jeff
Davis county (low population, Fort Davis) with 35.1%, followed by San Diego County, 29.5%,
Brewster County (Alpine and Big Bend National Park), 27.7% and Pima County (Tucson),
26.7%. The lowest is Starr county, also the poorest county, with 6.9% having a Bachelor’s or
higher. Four other counties: Zapata, Maverick, Hudspeth in Texas and Hidalgo, New Mexico
have less than 10%. The lowest counties are all fairly rural and poor.
At the other end of the spectrum are those U.S. adults, 25 and over, who have less than a
ninth grade education, Fig. 9. Except for this particular statistic, education indicators both for
Mexico and the U.S. show good improvement and until 1980 the proportion of U.S. population
with less than ninth grade also showed improvement, decreasing from 20% in 1950 to 8% in
1980. The border region, having a smaller proportion of population with less than ninth grade
than the U.S. as a whole went from 12.2% in 1950 to 5.3% in 1980. However, between 1980
and 1990 in the U.S. as a whole this percentage increased two percent and increased by eight
percent on the border. The increase was very dramatic in the Texas border region where it went
from 6.2% in 1980, lower than the national percentage to 32.9% in 1990. Border regions in the
other three border states also increased in the percentage of adults with less than ninth grade,
just not as dramatically as Texas. Between 1990 and 2000 the proportion in Texas decreased
slightly, but it continued to rise in the other three border regions. One possible explanation for
this trend is the increase in foreign born in the border region that began in 1970 (see Fig. 5).
3.2. Trends in housing
Housing is a critical factor in the quality of life. In the border regions housing shortages
and high rates of poverty result in higher rates of substandard housing, defined as housing
J.B. Anderson / The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554 547
Fig. 10. Proportion of housing lacking some plumbing U.S. and border region.
that lacks basic services: electricity, sewage and/or water. The U.S. census data tracks the
proportion of dwellings that are lacking complete plumbing, the variable used here as a proxy
for substandard housing.7 Fig. 10 shows the trend in the proportion of U.S. housing lacking
complete plumbing for national and the border regions. Both have decreased significantly
between 1970 and 2000, indicating increased access to plumbing over this period. If having
all plumbing is a reasonable proxy for housing quality, then quality of life has improved,
especially for those at the bottom of the income distribution. In 2000, the county with the
highest proportion of housing lacking plumbing (4.9%) is Hudspeth, the county adjacent to El
Paso. Second highest (4.7%) is Starr County, the county with the highest poverty rate. Starr
County is adjacent to McAllen/Edinburg in Hidalgo County, which had 3.1% of its housing
lacking complete plumbing in 2000.
In Mexico and its border region the proportion of housing lacking water or connection to
a sewer system is much higher, but as Fig. 11 shows has improved greatly over the period.
In 1960 in the Mexican border region 61% of houses were not hooked up to a sewer system
(compared to 71% nationally) and 48% had no running water (68% nationally). By 2000, this
had improved to 15% without sewer and 7.5% without water in the border region. Throughout
the period the proportion of substandard housing in the border region has been less than for
the nation as a whole, but considerably higher than in the U.S. border region.
Fig. 11. Proportion of housing lacking water or sewer: Mexico and border region.
548 J.B. Anderson / The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554
On the Mexican side of the border affordable housing for the working and poor classes is
available by occupying lands on the edge of the city that have not yet gotten services, but can
be bought cheaply or invaded. In an invasion, a group of organized people take over a plot of
land, building shacks over night. Over time these irregular areas become regularized. Services
arrive. Electricity, which is the cheapest and easiest to provide, arrives first. Then water and
finally a sewage system. Houses begin as shacks made of whatever materials are available. As
the family can get a little extra money, they begin to buy more solid building materials, like
bricks, cinder blocks, and cement. The piles of brick in the front yard represents the family’s
savings account. Once sufficient materials are accumulated, they begin to build a house, room
at a time, adding on as they can. For example, an invasion in Mexicali that took place in 1984,
established a poor colonia in an area at the edge of the city that had formerly been used as a
dump. With organizing and some good leadership among the group of families who moved
into this area, they were able to pressure the city into supplying electricity in three years time.
Water lines were put in after 10 years and a sewer system after 18 years. Over time as families
are able, houses have been upgraded and the city and jobs have moved out closer to the colonia.
Streets are still unpaved and families still lack clear title to their property.
Substandard housing in the U.S. border region is also frequently found in irregular settlements outside urban areas, but near employment areas. In Texas these settlements are called
colonias. The word colonia in Mexico merely means neighborhood, which can be a wealthy
colonia or a poor one. In Texas, colonia means a poor neighborhood that lacks at least some
of the basic services: electricity, water, and/or sewer. These irregular neighborhoods provide
one means of access to affordable housing, which is increasingly scarce in the border region.
Under Texas law a landholder can subdivide his land and sell it without making improvements.
The lots are sold with very little down, around $150, and low monthly payments, around $50,
so they are affordable to low-income families. Developers sell land using a system of contracts
for deeds (CFDs) instead of mortgage loans. There CFDs give no title or equity until the lot
is completely paid for. Interest rates on the loans tend to be high and it takes a very long time
under this arrangement to pay for the land. In 1995, Texas passed the Colonias Fair Land Sales
Act to curb abuses of CFD financing. The law requires developers to record contracts in county
registers and to provide annual summaries of the status of the CFD to buyers. Developers must
also document provision or not of services such as water, sewage, electricity and inform buyers
if the lot is on a flood plain (Sharp, 1998, p. 92).
People with strong desires to own their own piece of land are willing to buy into this. As one
woman put it: “I wanted to be sure that my children would have a roof over their heads in 10
years.” People put a mobile home or small wooden structure on the lot and begin to plan and
dream of enlarging and improving their home as they get money ahead. Over time the home and
neighborhood improve. The rate of improvement is very much related to the amount of effort
devoted to community organizing by members of the community (i.e., the amount of social
capital in the community). As in Mexico, electricity is the first to arrive. A sewer line is usually
last with paved roads, phone lines and water arriving one by one in the meantime. Beginning in
1989, Texas Water Development Board has used the Economically Distressed Areas Program
funds to finance water and sewage hookups in colonias (Sharp, 1998, pp. 92–93).
With the introduction of water, property values increase and more people move into the
neighborhood. The community may, in fact, become incorporated as a city, as was the case
J.B. Anderson / The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554 549
with El Cenizo, a now incorporated city outside of Laredo (Webb County), Texas. El Cenizo
received national recognition when they passed a law that all city business was to be conducted
in Spanish. That turns out to be unconstitutional in the state of Texas. Over a 10-year period
with outside community organizers to help, they lobbied for and obtained electricity, water and
pavement on some streets. A very nice looking school was built in the neighborhood. Still it is a
long way into Laredo where most of them work, with commuting times in excess of an hour and
bus transportation that runs once per hour. Long workdays coupled with long commute times
mean that there are lots of latch key children in the neighborhood, with all the problems that
can arise from this situation, including gangs and drugs. El Cenizo was successful in lobbying
the school to provide an after school program for children. The leaders in El Cenizo are now
working hard on writing grant proposals for money to build a library. In the meantime they are
collecting books. The long distances also mean difficulties in obtaining adequate health care.
A colonia can be very far from an emergency room and waits for an ambulance to arrive can
be very long.
The story of El Cenizo serves to illustrate the process of improving living conditions over
time. With new sales of subdivided raw land, each further away from employment centers than
the last, the slow process of gaining services and building community begins again. However,
housing in the coloniasis affordable, making home ownership possible, even if at great sacrifice
of conveniences. With the arrival of services, especially water, property values appreciate and
living there becomes more comfortable. As one woman, who lived in a colonia for 16 years
before it got water said, she likes living in the community now, but there were a lot of hard
years leading upto “now.”
3.3. Trends in poverty
In comparing poverty in the border region with each nation as a whole, several earlier
studies, including Anderson, Clement, and Shellhammer (1980), Stoddard and Hedderson
(1989), Dillman (1983), and Pick, Butler, and Jones (1990) all have noted that poverty rates
tend to be lower in the Mexican border region than for Mexico as a whole and higher in the
U.S. border region than for the U.S. as a whole. Some of the highest poverty rates in the
U.S. are found in the counties touching the U.S.-Mexico border, especially those in Southern
Texas. Starr County, Texas has the highest poverty rate in the nation. Despite continued real
economic growth in the United States, the trends in increasing income inequality have resulted
in increased poverty. This is true nationally, but even more so on the border with Mexico.
In this paper, the term poverty is defined as insufficient income to cover a family’s basic
needs. For the U.S. it is the percent of families below the U.S. established poverty line. The
data used to measure poverty in Mexico is the percent of wage earners earning less than one
minimum wage in the decades of 1970 and 1980, and wage earners earning less than two
minimum wages in the decades of 1990 and 2000.8 According to the Mexican Constitution
of 1917, Article 123, minimum wages were to be set at a level sufficient to satisfy the basic
needs of a family. A family with income below one minimum wage would have insufficient
income to meet basic needs and hence be in poverty. This is supported by a study by the Centro
de Estudios del Trabajo (1986). In this study, it was found that the basic basket of nutritional
necessities, in 1983 required 40% of the minimum wage. By 1985 one hundred percent of the
550 J.B. Anderson / The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554
Fig. 12. Real Mexican minimum wage in 1994 pesos.
minimum wage was needed to meet the same basic necessities, mainly due to the inflation
in the Mexican economy. This study estimated that in 1985, 2.5 minimum wages would be
required to meet the basic minimal necessities (pp. 25–26). Since the purchasing power of
minimum wages in Mexico was about half in 1990 what it was in 1980, the data recorded here
also reports the percentage of wage earners earning less than two minimum wages. By 1990
two minimum wages was probably a better measure of the poverty line for Mexico. During the
1990’s the purchasing power of the Mexican minimum wage continued to fall. Fig. 12 shows
the real value of the Mexican minimum wage from 1970 through 2000. The figures showing
trends in poverty for Mexico all use the definition of Mexican poverty rates as the percentage of
wage earners earning below one minimum wage for 1970 and 1980 and the percentage earning
below two minimum wages for 1990 and 2000. Ranfla et. al. (2001) also use the proportion
below two minimum wages as a measure of poverty for 1990.9
Individual wage data, as published in the Mexican census, rather than family income, only
gives a rough approximation of the trends in poverty since there can be more than one wage
earner per family. Two studies of poor Mexican families’ survival strategies, one by Gonzalez
de la Rocha (1986) and the other Tijuana (Anderson & de la Rosa, 1991) indicate that as real
wages fall, more members of a family tend to join the labor force in order to survive. The data
available are consistent and therefore indicate trends without providing as exacting a number as
is desired. The percentage falling below poverty calculated from the Mexican census data and
reported in Table 1 indicate that poverty rates rose substantially in most municipios during the
1980s, the decade following the Mexican debt crisis. It declined again in all but nine of the 38
municipios between 1990 and 2000, the decade of NAFTA, falling most in municipios that are
major transit routes for goods trading between the two countries, like Ciudad Acuña, Piedras
Negras, Laredo and Matamoros. Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez also showed small decreases, but
much smaller than the other four. The poverty rates for many of the border municipios continue
to be below the Mexican national rate.
In the U.S. absolute poverty is defined by the poverty line which is a family income equal
to the minimum income needed to provide for basic needs. It is calculated as the minimum
amount needed to provide an adequate diet times a multiple of roughly three to provide for
housing, clothing, transportation and other basic needs. The exact figure varies with family
J.B. Anderson / The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554 551
Table 1
Estimates of poverty in the Mexico and U.S. border regions
Workers with less than minimum wagea (%) U.S. families below poverty lineb (%)
1970c 1980c 1990d 2000d 1970 1980 1990 2000
Mexico 64.3 55.6 63.2 48.0 United States 10.7 9.6 10.0 12.4
Baja 55.3 52.0 40.0 41.7 California 8.4 8.7 9.3 14.2
Tijuana 44.5 24.6 43.8 39.4 Imperial 16.2 12.7 20.8 30.3
Tecate 43.9 23.8 42.7 45.8 San Diego 8.6 8.4 8.1 12.4
Mexicali 36.9 21.8 34.4 41.8
Sonora 56.2 47.8 52.7 56.5 Arizona 11.5 9.5 11.4 12.0
San Luis Rio Col 20.0 15.5 43.2 49.8 Cochise 13.4 11.8 15.8 21.7
Puerto Penasco 22.6 11.2 47.0 49.4 Pima 10.8 9.1 12.0 16.2
Caborca 26.6 10.6 57.5 62.9 Santa Cruz 20.0 13.4 22.0 25.8
Altar 13.0 10.4 54.8 64.1 Yuma 13.6 12.3 15.4 25.8
Saric 23.6 19.8 46.4 53.1
Nogales 33.9 8.3 51.1 50.2 New Mexico 18.6 14.0 16.5 18.4
Santa Cruz 15.6 17.4 71.9 58.7 Dona Ana 20.7 18.3 20.7 26.6
Cananea 29.5 12.6 36.5 46.1 Grant 11.8 12.4 17.7 20.3
Naco 36.6 21.2 59.3 56.5 Hidalgo 22.1 14.7 18.1 22.6
Agua Prieta 39.7 11.5 52.4 58.1 Luna 20.5 19.2 24.9 29.8
Chihuahua 62.1 55.7 52.8 50.9
Janos 13.5 10.2 71.5 55.6 Texas 14.7 11.1 14.1 15.4
Ascencion 23.9 16.9 50.0 41.7 Brewster 27.1 14.8 22.4 22.7
Juarez 46.3 15.7 44.9 39.9 Culberson 18.6 17.3 26.2 32.6
Guadalupe 14.7 12.0 54.4 56.3 El Paso 17.4 18.0 22.4 27.8
P.G. Guerrero 13.5 20.5 66.3 62.3 Hudspeth 28.2 25.7 32.4 32.9
Ojinaga 23.9 17.5 61.7 39.2 Jeff Davis 26.5 19.6 15.0 16.6
Coahuila 66.3 53.5 60.9 51.8 Presidio 40.9 34.6 40.2 35.6
Acuna 46.4 24.1 62.6 30.6 Terrell 23.6 16.1 20.6 20.9
Jimenez 10.7 18.6 78.5 45.5 Cameron 38.6 26.0 33.7 35.6
Piedras Negras 45.4 20.8 55.3 23.4 Hidalgo 42.2 29.0 36.3 37.6
Guerrero 10.2 19.5 72.4 52.2 Kinney 45.7 29.0 22.0 26
Hindalgo 11.7 20.0 77.2 43.9 Maverick 44.1 34.4 45.6 39.7
Nuevo Leon 55.5 44.9 58.7 52.5 Starr 52.3 45.0 56.5 46.7
Anahuac 14.6 22.9 67.9 50.5 Valverde 24.5 24.3 29.4 29.5
Tamulipas 61.9 52.9 61.1 53.9 Webb 38.5 29.0 33.1 32.6
Nuevo Leon 47.0 24.7 58.6 37.8 Zapata 50.6 23.8 36.0 32.1
Guerrero 22.3 21.5 52.0 52.8
Mier 34.9 30.8 62.6 48.8
Miguel Aleman 35.7 23.1 58.4 44.7
Camargo 28.4 26.8 65.4 51.1
Reynosa 37.3 18.8 58.0 44.6
Rio Bravo 30.2 19.7 67.2 55.9
Valle Hermoso 31.5 23.8 65.8 55.9
Matamoros 41.2 17.3 51.1 36.3
Census income data are sampled from year prior to the census. Sources: acalculated from INEGI, Censo General
de Poblacion y Vivienda 1970, Table 48, 1980, Table 33; ´ bU.S. Bureau of the Census (1970, 1980, 1990 & 2000).
United States population census; c
percent with earnings below 1 minimum wage; dpercent with earnings below 2
minimum wage.
552 J.B. Anderson / The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554
size and over time with inflation. The poverty rate of a region is the percentage of families
whose incomes fall below the poverty line. The census data measurements of this proportion
for 1970 through 2000 for the U.S., the border states and the border counties are presented in
Table 1.
Nationally, the economic growth of the 1950s and 1960s, along with the “war on poverty”
during the 1960s lowered absolute poverty rates. By 1970 around 10% of U.S. families fell
below the poverty line. The poverty rate fluctuated around 10%, through 1990, rising during
recessions. However, despite the economic boom during the 1990s, close to its peak in 2000,
the national poverty rate actually rose to 12.4%. The economic growth of the 1990s was
concentrated in the upper 20% of income earners, those with more education and skills. It
appears to have been more of a bust for those at the bottom of the income scale. This increase
in poverty rates is evident in all four border states. California, where poverty rates between
1970 and 1990 were lower than the national average, experienced a larger than average increase
in poverty, increasing from 9.3% in 1990 to 14.2% in 2000, 1.8% higher than the national rate
of 12.4%. Arizona, on the other hand, had a smaller rise in poverty, going from 11.4% in 1990
to 12.0% in 2000, slightly under the national rate.
All of the border counties in California, Arizona, New Mexico and all but five counties in
Texas also experienced increases in poverty rates between 1990 and 2000, most of them larger
than the national average. The poverty rate for 2000 in San Diego County, that through 1990
was the only border county to have poverty rates less than the national average, rose to equal
the national rate. As of 2000, there was no border county with a poverty rate less than the
national rate, though San Diego still has the lowest poverty rate of any border county. The
poverty rate in Imperial County, California, rose from 21% in 1990 to over 30%. This is a rich
agricultural county where El Centro is the main city. The large proportion of low paid farm
laborers in the county accounts for much of the poverty. Yuma County, Arizona, neighboring
Imperial County, also experienced a 10% increase in the poverty rate from 15% in 1990 to
25% in 2000.
In 2000 there were only three border counties with poverty rates under 20%: San Diego,
California, Pima county (Tucson) Arizona and Jeff Davis county, Texas. Jeff Davis County
with its population of 2200 in this county of 2258 square miles, all classified as rural, is
a county of mountains and ranches, mainly cattle. Fort Davis, near the site of an historical
fort, is the largest town. The other two counties contain prosperous cities. There are nine
border counties that have poverty rates in excess of 30%. All of these, but Imperial County,
California, are in Texas. Starr County in South Texas is the poorest county, not only on the
border, but nationally with a poverty rate in 2000 of 47%, down from 57% in 1990. Starr
County, with its historic border communities of Roma and Rio Grande City, is part of the
historic Border Heritage Project. The other Texas counties with poverty rates in excess of 30%,
going from west to east include Hudspeth (bordering on El Paso county), Culberson, Presidio,
Maverick (Eagle Pass), Webb (Laredo), Zapata, Hidalgo (McAllen, Edinberg) and Cameron
(Brownsville, Harlingen). The rural vs. urban nature of the county does not appear to matter
with respect to the high poverty rates. Some of these counties, e.g., Hudspeth and Culberson
are 100% rural while others like Webb, Hidalgo and Cameron counties are predominately
urban. The high poverty rates along the border, which have remained over time, are a cause
for concern.
J.B. Anderson / The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554 553
4. Summing up
The last half of the 20th century in the U.S.-Mexico border region has been a period of rapid
population growth, especially between 1950 and 1970. Though the growth rate has been higher
on the Mexican side of the border, the U.S. side, which had almost twice as much population
in 1950, still has over half a million more people than the Mexican side. Most of this growth
has been in the cities, leading to a highly urbanized population. Falling fertility rates have led
to a decrease in the proportion of the population under 15, most dramatically in Mexico and
the Mexican border region. Much of the growth in population on the border has been due to
migration, most of it from other states of the respective country. The U.S. border region has
experienced a significant increase in foreign born population starting in 1970.
The quality of life indicators of educational attainment and housing quality both show
substantial gains in both the U.S. and Mexican border regions over the fifty year period. In
both cases the amount of gain was greater on the Mexican side of the border. With respect to
educational attainment and housing that lack plumbing, the border regions follow the national
rates closely, but the rate for the Mexican border region is slightly higher in educational
attainment and lower in lacking plumbing than the national rate. In 2000 the U.S. measures for
educational attainment were lower and houses lacking plumbing higher in the border region
than the national rate. A troublesome trend in U.S. border counties is the increase in population
25 and over who have not completed ninth grade.
Poverty on the border remains too high and has not shown a clear trend on either side of
the border. In comparison with the national rate, the poverty rates of the U.S. border counties
are all above the national rate, except for San Diego’s, until 2000, when it equaled the national
rate. On the other hand, most of the poverty rates in Mexico, though much higher than for
the U.S. are lower than the national rate. That the dynamic growth taking place in the border
region has not affected the poverty rate suggests the need for a concentrated effort to combat
poverty, perhaps a border region war on poverty.
1. The data from 1950 to 1983 are from David Lorey (1993, p. 109, Table S24). The 1996
and 2002 estimates are the author’s, based on IMF and U.S. Labor Department data.
2. From interviews in Ciudad Acuña, Mier and Matamoros with the author, January 2003.
Translation is author’s.
3. Rural is defined as living in a town with less than 2500 people.
4. Based on author’s interviews in March 2003.
5. Author’s calculations based on INEGI data of Mexican federal government expenditures.
6. To have comparable data over the years, the Mexican education trends begin with 1960
since in the 1950 only educational attainment for population 25 and over is given.
7. This data only goes back to 1970 since different definitions were used for the 1950 and
1960 censuses.
8. These are not exactly equivalent, but the best we could do given the data available.
554 J.B. Anderson / The Social Science Journal 40 (2003) 535–554
9. This same two minimum wage measure could be applied also to the U.S. In 1990, the
$3.80 per hour minimum wage for a full time worker (40 hr per week for 52 weeks) would
yield an annual income of $7600, 59% of the poverty line for a family of four. Almost
two minimum wages were required in the U.S. to reach the poverty line. In 1980, the
minimum wage of $3.10 per hr yielded an income that was 74% of the poverty line for
a family of four, assuming full time employment.
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region. Journal of Borderlands Studies, 6(1).
Anderson, J. B., Clement, N., & Shellhammer, K. (1980). Economic importance of the U.S. Southwest border region.
California Border Area Resource Center, San Diego State University.
Bracho, T. (2000). Poverty and education in Mexico, 1984–1996. In R. Fernando (Ed.), Unequal schools, unequal
chances (pp. 249–284). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Burr, C. (2001, Fall). Deaths on the border, illegal immigration and operation gatekeeper. Journal
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Vivienda. Mexico, DF.
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in Education, Inc.
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Borderlands Studies, 14(2), 93–112.
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