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Measuring Up: A History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1850-1950

Author(s):López-Alonso, Moramay
Reviewer(s):Challú, Amílcar E.

Published by EH.Net (June 2013)

Moramay L?pez-Alonso, Measuring Up: A History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1850-1950. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012. xvii + 276 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8047-7316-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Am?lcar E. Chall?, Department of History, Bowling Green State University.

The study of living standards and inequality in Latin America is thriving. The literature is growing at a fast rate with special issues in journals, edited volumes, articles, and books. The growth of economic history in peripheral regions of the world, the questioning of assumptions of Western superiority, and the availability of anthropometric methods and sources have converged with a renewed interest among development organizations to implement effective policies that target poverty and inequality. A few issues have deserved intense inquiry, such as the effects of colonialism, globalization, fast economic growth, and welfare policies on the material and biological wellbeing of the population.

L?pez-Alonso’s Measuring Up is a worthy addition to this literature. The book focuses on Mexico in the critical century from the civil wars of the 1850s to the consolidation of a revolutionary, pro-industrialization regime in the 1950s. L?pez-Alonso argues that the living standards of the majority of the population, measured through average soldier heights, declined in the second half of the nineteenth century and stagnated until the 1930s, reaching very low levels in international standards, and only improved in the late 1930s and 1940s. Low heights were correlated with a high incidence of nutrition-related diseases and low life-expectancy. The poor nutrition and health of the majority contrasted with a sustained improvement over the period among the urban privileged. There are two major explanatory factors for this diverging trend: bad policies, and strong income and human capital inequalities that resulted in wide disparities in dietary habits across the social spectrum.

The book is organized in three thematic sections dealing with welfare policies, trends in average heights of different groups of the population, and the health and nutritional profile of the population. Each section deals with the entirety of the period. The first section on welfare policies starts with a discussion about institutions and ideas of charity and welfare in the western world and their influence in Mexico. The author argues that traditional Catholic charity moderated the wide gaps in income, but the attacks of liberal elites since the mid nineteenth century and the predatory attitude of the state hindered the construction of a viable secular alternative. As a result, the lack of safety nets in the liberal regime and the continuation of similar policies increased inequality until the implementation of more comprehensive poverty alleviation policies in the early 1930s with the C?rdenas administration. Overall, the treatment of the nineteenth century does not take into account the incorporation of Mexico into international trade flows that had a likely impact on inequality and the structure of the economy. Welfare institutions are portrayed in vague terms and they omit food supply policies, an area in which there were some innovations in the nineteenth and twentieth century that could have had a direct effect on the acquisition of food. Still, the section establishes that poverty alleviation has a long and contradictory tradition in Mexican politics and some of its traits still permeate today’s discourse.

The analysis of heights in the second section is the core of Measuring Up. The author reviews different approaches to measure living standards and ponders the pros and cons. Human heights are not necessarily a “one size fits all” solution, but provide consistent, widely available evidence to study biological living standards. Three sources are used in the study: a cavalry corps (the Rurales, recruited mostly from the 1870s to the 1900s), the national infantry army (recruited mostly in the twentieth century), and passport applicants (first half of the twentieth century). All series are reported by birth cohort, providing overlapping coverage for the 1850-1950 period. The contrast of the height trajectories in the three samples provides the most interesting insight of the book. The urban elites and manual workers in the formal economy (passport holders) won from the policies of modernization and the welfare policies narrowly focused in major cities, while unskilled workers in precarious jobs and in rural areas (army recruits) lost throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. Average soldier heights only started to rebound in the late 1930s, matching the shift in welfare policies at the national level. This section also provides international comparisons using the truncated average of the two cavalry and infantry series. Using this series the author concludes that Mexican men were as tall as Western Europeans in the 1850s but were of relatively short stature by the mid twentieth century.

The third section is set as a counterpoint to James C. Riley’s history of twelve countries that, despite low income levels, reached a high standard of health.[1]? L?pez-Alonso argues that Riley was wrong in choosing Mexico as one of the test cases, since at least until the 1950s Mexico showed a poor performance in aggregate health indicators. The author introduces an original analysis of the causes of death among a subset of the soldiers in the national army that demonstrates that the majority died from diseases closely connected to nutritional deficiencies. The author identifies the same pattern of malnutrition-related disease in nationwide studies of the mid twentieth century. L?pez-Alonso makes a convincing case that a large part of the population experienced nutritional stress at several points in their lives. A discussion of dietary habits using nineteenth-century travelers’ literature and mid-twentieth century nutritional surveys shows that there were significant differences in nutrition by class, region and ethnic origin. Economic inequality affected the acquisition of food and the achievement of biological wellbeing.

In all, the significant contribution of the book is to strengthen the argument that Mexican underdevelopment is not an immutable legacy but a series of accumulated processes that have reproduced inequalities and poverty over time. The book provides substance to the narratives of high inequality during the Porfiriato and the early years of the revolutionary period, while it rescues the legacy of the C?rdenas redistributive policies. The linkages between heights and disease are an excellent addition to our understanding of living conditions. Measuring Up is a provocative piece with good information and hypotheses to contribute to the vibrancy of current studies in living standards.

1. James C. Riley, Low Income, Social Growth, and Good Health: A History of Twelve Countries, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Am?lcar E. Chall? is Associate Professor of History in Bowling Green State University. He co-edited Living Standards in Latin American History with Ricardo Salvatore and John Coatsworth (Harvard University David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, 2010). His book, The Political Economy of Hunger in Late Colonial Mexico, is forthcoming in 2014 with Harvard University Press.

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Subject(s):Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII