Change and Continuity in Social Protection in Latin America: Mothers at the Service of the State?

This paper has three main objectives. First, to describe the principal elements of new approaches to social policy in Latin America, in order to further understanding of the new forms of social protection that are evolving in the South. Second, to examine and contrast new and older models of poverty relief with specific reference to Latin America; and third, to ask what the implications of these polices and programmes are for those who have been among the most actively engaged in them, and who constitute a good proportion of their beneficiaries, namely low-income women.

Three main arguments are advanced in the paper. The first is that while evolving approaches to social protection in developing countries are routinely described as “neoliberal”, this descriptor is too broad to capture the changes in policy approaches that have taken place since the era of stabilization and adjustment. The “second and third waves” of reform have absorbed the language of equality, citizenship and participation, and while the scope of state action and expenditure was sharply reduced in the 1980s, there has been a slow if as yet inadequate recovery since then. Indeed, some policy analysts talk of a new era of welfarism, and of “working towards universalism”.

The second argument concerns the way that anti-poverty programmes function. While those developed in the 1990s are to a large extent state financed and managed, they depend for their functioning on refiguring state-society relations in ways that attempt to build on existing, or create new forms of, social control and engagement. In short, for all the talk of “hollowed-out states”, social relations and states continue to be of critical importance in securing the welfare of low-income populations, although in ways that are not sufficiently problematized—especially in regard to their gendered implications.

The third and central argument of the paper is that the terms of women’s incorporation into welfare systems in Latin America have always been strongly influenced by women’s symbolic and social roles as mothers. Currently evolving anti-poverty programmes are in the main, despite some adaptations to modern conceptions of citizenship, still premised on a gendered construction of social need and indeed have the effect of re-traditionalizing gendered roles and responsibilities. Thus the state is actively involved, through these programmes, in the structuring of asymmetrical and unequal gender relations, and this, it is argued, has long-term consequences for the satisfaction of social need.

The discussion is organized into two main parts: the first is concerned with Latin American social policy provision, before and after the structural reforms. It examines the ways in which women’s access to social rights was historically conditioned by their status as wives and mothers, and their position within the labour market as low-paid, unorganized and informalized workers. It then proceeds to identify the key elements of the New Social Policy and describes the newer aspects of poverty relief post-1985.

Part 2 opens with a discussion of the gender and poverty debate, and goes on to examine two contrasting Latin American poverty relief programmes, Progresa/Oportunidades in Mexico and the Comedores Populares in Peru, in an attempt to identify the different ways in which gender is, and has been, implicated in the design and management of poverty relief. These two cases are selected as they represent earlier and current approaches to poverty relief. Progresa/Oportunidades is generally taken as a model case for the new cash transfer anti-poverty programmes being developed in Latin America and has been widely emulated; the Comedores Populares evolved from a grassroots food distribution programme, to become an important safety net for the urban poor.