Poverty in Costa Rica continues to be an ongoing issue as the country suffers from a lack of infrastructure, weak educational system and high food prices. President Barack Obama recently announced a plan to provide $1 billion in aid to Central American countries. This plan curiously omitted Costa Rica from its list, citing “place-based security strategies” as the reason.
Costa Rica’s troubled neighbors—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, together known as the “northern triangle”—certainly deserve the attention of U.S. policymakers. In El Salvador, the most violent country on earth that is not at war, the homicide rate stands at 90 per 100,000 residents.
From 2009 to 2013, the number of asylum seekers from these countries in the U.S. has seen a sevenfold increase to 2.7 million people. In fact, some analysts are calling this exodus a “Central American Spring” sparked by drug trafficking, violence and extortion.
Though its rule of law has remained intact, Costa Rica shares a similar poverty experience. Poverty in Costa Rica stands at 22.4 percent of the population, a number that has fluctuated little since the 1990s. Roughly 60 percent of the Costa Rican workforce is unskilled. However, the demand for skilled workers continues to increase thanks to new free trade agreements and the privatization of most government enterprises.
This trend is not likely to change if U.S. foreign aid is diverted exclusively to northern triangle states. Alejandra Obando-Hernandez, a researcher at American University’s School of Public Affairs, finds that unskilled Costa Rican parents exhibit “low expectations regarding future benefits of their children’s education.”
There are two reasons for these low expectations that point to how U.S. aid could be effectively utilized in this country. The first is the “books” issue, or the persistent shortcomings on metrics like desertion, teacher training and pedagogical innovation. Only 15.6 percent of Costa Rican children live in homes with some form of post-secondary education; of all students, only 46 percent graduate from high school.
Hernandez attributes these statistics to a lack of school infrastructure and inadequate teacher training. Among the insufficient resources in secondary schools are science labs (61 percent), library rooms (35 percent), computer labs (24 percent) and computers (35 percent). In addition, 20 percent of secondary schools lack sufficient classrooms to host their students.
The second problem is the “butter” issue, or the unnecessary burden that food places on the poorest fifth of Costa Rican families. These high food prices are caused by price controls and agricultural protectionism.
In the case of rice, one sole corporation is authorized to import this staple at low, world market prices. That rice is then sold domestically at higher, price-fixed rates.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, Costa Rica has the third most expensive rice in the world. A basic food basket costs $42.37 compared to the monthly income of $82 for the poorest fifth. Once two school-going children are factored, the cost of education rises to 104 percent of monthly income.
U.S. aid to help poverty in Costa Rica could help improve these statistics by supplementing educational subsidies (already strong) and alleviating the shock to firms releasing their monopoly status. Doing so would create a stronger, more stable regional partner capable of counteracting the rampant violence in the rest of Central America.
– Alfredo Cumerma