Why Is El Salvador Poor
Why is El Salvador Poor? In a country with a highly urbanized workforce and a small wealthy elite who became rich through coffee and sugar, it is surprising that almost 40 percent of the population falls below the poverty line.

More than half a million Salvadorans live on less than $2 a day, making it very difficult to buy food with proper nutrition. Even with the land reform and property redistribution that occurred in the 1980s and helped some rural people make sustainable incomes, there is still a large divide between the wealthy and the poor in El Salvador.


Why is El Salvador Poor? Top 3 Reasons


USAID reports that El Salvador’s per capita income is the fifth-lowest in the western hemisphere. The economy is stagnating in a decade-long cycle of low growth that has restricted the creation of higher paying jobs, which translates to low productivity and higher crime, especially in terms of the “Maras,” or the violent criminal gangs that have high profiles in El Salvador and around Central America.

Many youth in rural areas live in poverty and choose to migrate rather than stay in a harsh cycle of unemployment or join a gang. This problem is in large part due to a weak education system that sees less than 50 percent of Salvadorans graduate from the sixth grade, one out of three completing the ninth grade and only one out of five completing high school.

What other factors can answer the question: why is El Salvador poor? The Salvadoran healthcare system is another public service that needs to be stronger in order to support financial gains that take people out of poverty. Medical unions and the Salvadoran government have been going back and forth for a long time, with the unions resisting privatization of healthcare and conducting medical personnel strikes frequently.

Hospital budgets primarily go toward paying salaries, leaving little extra funding for basic drugs and medical equipment. While the infant mortality rate has fallen by more than 70 percent in the last three decades, the overall death rate for children is still extremely high at 81 deaths per 1,000 children.

The Salvadoran government is working with international organizations to reduce poverty, especially in rural areas. In 2011, it launched the Plan de Agricultura Familiar (Family Farming Plan) to improve agricultural production and supplement the income of poor rural families while also increasing the competitiveness of domestic agriculture in markets. By localizing many services and improving the healthcare system while working to reduce crime, rural families can begin to utilize a public safety net that will help them out of poverty and create a middle class in Salvadoran society.

Saru Duckworth

Photo: Google

El Salvador Poverty Rate
El Salvador, a tiny county in Central America, has struggled with corruption and poverty for centuries. The El Salvador poverty rate is one of the highest in the world.

In fact, the most recent official statistics reported that the poverty rate in El Salvador is above a third of the entire population. In 2015, the CIA established that almost 35 percent of El Salvador’s population lived below the poverty line. Other recent data has shown it could be above 40 percent.

One standardized way of measuring poverty thresholds is contrasting a household’s income with the price of a basic family basket of food sufficient to feed the whole household.

A study into the El Salvador poverty rate defines living in poverty as any household whose income does not reach two times the price of a basic family basket of food.

Most data places the price of a basic family basket of food at somewhere between $130 and $184, depending on the rurality of the area. Therefore, if a basket were to be priced at $170 nationwide, then the number of households with a monthly income below $340 would make up the poverty rate.

The El Salvador poverty rate logically goes hand-in-hand with the issue of violent gangs, who have plagued the country since the end of the civil war. A report out of El Salvador has attributed 84 percent of forced displacement to gang violence and crime.

The World Bank and others have pointed to a declining poverty rate in El Salvador, citing a possible seven percent fall since 2000. However, this data has been contradicted.

With a fluctuating GDP, it is difficult to observe any real patterns of economic growth in the nation. This is predominantly because of large-scale corruption.

In fact, just last year former President of El Salvador, Antonio Saca, was arrested on corruption charges. He has been accused of misusing public funds and money laundering. These accusations have come in light of him acquiring five to six million dollars while in office.

The United Nations announced the establishment of a program that will tackle corruption in El Salvador. By working with existing institutions, the anti-corruption program will investigate existing cases while attempting to uncover more.

Most analysts share the belief that before the El Salvador poverty rate can be effectively addressed and significantly shifted, the country must rid itself of the levels of corruption evident today.

Cornell Holland

Photo: Flickr

Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in the relatively small country, which has less than seven million citizens. The next leading causes of death include influenza, pneumonia, kidney disease, liver disease and lung disease. El Salvador has a relatively high number of healthcare workers but is still not able to meet the needs of the population with its current healthcare system and the unequal distribution of healthcare workers at different levels of service.

It is important to note that the top diseases in El Salvador and the top causes of death are not the same. Violence against citizens and road traffic accidents are among the top ten causes of death in El Salvador.

Regarding infectious diseases in El Salvador, currently, the Zika virus is still a significant risk to pregnant women in or traveling to El Salvador. The primary method of contraction of this disease is through mosquito bites and sexual exposure. However, these mosquitoes cannot usually survive at elevations above 6,500 feet.

Though not everyone who contracts Zika gets sick, sometimes mild symptoms can last for several days. Occasionally Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) will accompany Zika virus, which entails muscle weakness and paralysis for a few weeks to several months. Research suggests the two are associated.  However, it remains unconfirmed due to the minimal amount of people with Zika virus that also contract GBS.

Hepatitis A and Typhoid can both be contracted through contaminated food or water in El Salvador though they are not among the top causes of death in the country. The risk of malaria contracted through mosquitoes is low, and is preventable with bug sprays.

Though El Salvador has struggled to provide adequate healthcare to its citizens in the past, the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare (MSPAS) has made strides in changing things. Most pressing is the disparity between public and private healthcare systems.

Ellen Ray

Photo: Flickr

8 Things to Know About Poverty in El Salvador
El Salvador is the most densely populated country in Central America. After a 12 year civil war and years of unstable leadership, poverty in El Salvador is a concern that greatly affects the over 6 million people living there.

Top 8 Facts on Poverty in El Salvador

Over 25 percent of children below the age of 5 experience extreme poverty in El Salvador and 36 percent of the rural population lives in poverty. Urbanization is a problem developing countries face as cities grow and become a hub for economic, medical and commercial activity. This causes problems for those in rural areas as they have less and less access to resources. Currently, 60.3 percent of citizens live in urban areas, which results in greater poverty for the remaining people outside of cities.

The people of El Salvador are also constantly at risk of facing greater challenges due to natural disasters. World Vision reports that the country “experiences frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity, making it known as the ‘land of volcanoes.” In December of 2013, the Chaparrastique volcano in eastern El Salvador erupted and caused the evacuation of 5,000 people.

Leaf rust has caused problems for the coffee industry in El Salvador, which is an important source of income for the country’s economy. Heavy rain and wind carry rust spores from plantations to other plantations miles away. Bloomberg reports that the 2015 coffee season projections fell from 920,000 to 613,333 60-kilogram bags.

90 percent of the population has access to safe water and 96 percent of children are enrolled in school, though this education may not be effective in preparing children for their future. The U.S. Agency for International Development reports, “Many children and adolescents living in El Salvador face enormous vulnerabilities associated with high rates of crime and gang violence including poor quality education.”

El Salvador has the highest homicide rate in the world for youth under 19, reports USAID. InSight Crime cites progress in El Salvador’s mission to reduce the number of violent deaths to a rate more in line with international statistics. In September of 2016, 13.3 percent fewer homicides occurred than the previous year. USAID launched programs whose focus is to stimulate and increase productivity in areas that are at risk, such as rural populations.

The national strategy entitled Plan El Salvador Seguro “addresses security and education opportunities in high crime municipalities.” The strategy involves programs such as Education for Children and Youth at Risk, as well as USAID Bridges to Employment to care for those who are not enrolled in education but need to provide for themselves and their families.

UNICEF Goodwill ambassador and former professional soccer player David Beckham’s new fund “7” launched a campaign in 2015 to end violence against children and poverty in El Salvador. This program is Beckham’s commitment to improving the lives of vulnerable children globally.

Beckham said, “Every day, violence affects thousands of children and adolescents in El Salvador. It’s an outrage – violence in their homes, schools and streets. El Salvador has the highest rate in the world of homicides of children and adolescents and, together, we can change this.”

Rebecca Causey

Photo: Flickr

Education_El Salvador
While education has slowly grown more accessible for El Salvador children since the end of the country’s civil war in 1992, poverty continues to keep children away from classrooms — particularly when reaching secondary school.

In 2013, elementary schools had a 91% enrollment. However, only 50-60% attended secondary school (grades seven through nine). Poverty levels also fluctuated between 30-40% over the past decade, rising to 55% in rural areas.

Poverty conditions often affect academic performance and can cause children to leave school early, as disadvantages faced by families often influence the choice.


El Salvador has child labor laws; it is illegal for children under 14 to have jobs and hours are restricted for anyone under 18. However, about 1.8 million children between the ages of five to 17 work to contribute to their families. Many of these children have to leave school to do so, thus continuing the cycle of poverty.

School Supply Costs

Although secondary education in El Salvador is free, students are required to have uniforms and basic supplies. This cost is often too much for families. Rural students are often unable to attend because they do not have means of transportation to get to even the nearest school.


School quality varies from region to region It is difficult to encourage students to actively participate in education when schools often are poorly constructed, lack the proper resources and are overcrowded.


After Honduras, El Salvador has the second-highest homicide rate in the world, fueled by active gangs, drugs and poverty. Children risk becoming either participants or victims of the violence. In this case, both employment and education appear to be part of the solution. Young people who join gangs are often those who do not have the resources to attend school but are unable to find a job in the stagnant economy.

Unregistered Children

Approximately 10% of the population were not registered at birth. This prevents children from becoming citizens or attending public schools in El Salvador. Unregistered children are born to families in rural areas or living on the street. Barring this particularly vulnerable group from education only continues the issues of violence and poverty.

Child Marriage

Legally, girls as young as 14 and boys as young as 15 can marry with parental permission. Twenty-five percent of Salvadorans are married by age 18. Members of a Global group called Girls, not Brides, state that child marriage often ends a girl’s formal education pursuits.

Change on the Way?

Problems with secondary education in El Salvador have been recognized and many are mobilizing to tackle these issues.

El Salvador passed a plan to end child labor by 2020 through the reduction of poverty, protection of children’s rights and improvements to education.

To reduce crime, the government passed a law called National Youth Policy, with the intent to create outlets for young people through education, employment or other constructive participation. Some American organizations like USAID and Tailored for Education have invested in Salvadoran schools to improve resources and infrastructure.

None of these economic or social issues are easy to resolve, but Salvadoran officials believe that with a literacy rate of 97%, high primary school attendance and a low gender gap, there will be a good foundation to make progress.

Jeanette I. Burke

Photo: Flickr

Central American Refugee Crisis
Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, commonly referred to as the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA), have seen drastic increases in the numbers of migrants fleeing to nearby nations, creating the present Central American refugee crisis. Since 2012, pending asylum cases in the U.S. and Mexico have reached 109,800.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), large-scale violence, poverty and unemployment motivate men, women and children to flee. Classifying the increase as a ‘protection crisis,’ the UNHCR recently stated that it is “particularly concerned about the rising numbers of unaccompanied children and women on the run who face forced recruitment into criminal gangs, sexual- and gender-based violence and murder.”

In a study conducted by the UNHCR, 64 percent of the women interviewed included direct threats and attacks by members of criminal armed groups as a primary reason for their flight. These attacks corresponded with increased violence against women and minimal police protection.

In an attempt to escape the violence, Central American refugees and asylum seekers most often flee to the north. Mexico experienced a 164 percent increase in asylum seekers between 2013 and 2015. Currently, the majority of Mexico’s 3,448 refugees arrived from Central America.

Mexico accepts less than one percent of NTCA child refugees, despite their escape from violence. In 2015 alone, Mexico apprehended more than 35,000 Central American migrant children, a 55 percent increase from the year before.

The Human Rights Watch determined that authorities in Mexico often complicate the processes of seeking asylum, forcing thousands of children to return home.

To further complicate the NTCA refugee’s plight, women who flee often face heightened risks. High smuggling fees, rape and extortion threaten women throughout their journey, especially near the U.S.-Mexico border. Despite these obstacles, more than 66,000 unaccompanied children fleeing NTCA countries reached the U.S. in 2014. An additional 66,000 NTCA families entered the U.S. in the same year.

Data from 2015 shows the U.S. continues to be the main country receiving asylum applications from Central America, registering almost twice the number in 2014.

In response to the Central American refugee crisis, the UNHCR has been working with governments and civil society partners in the region to develop heightened refugee screening capacities. They are also aiming to build stronger assistance programs for asylum seekers, including greater reception capacity in neighboring countries.

Asylum Access, an international organization that works with local governments and the UN, helps refugees assert their rights in first countries of refuge. Asylum Access has operated in Ecuador since 2007 and expanded to Panama and Mexico in 2015.

Asylum Access provides Latin American refugees with legal assistance, community legal empowerment and advocates against deportation and arrest. Through establishing the Hospitality Route initiative, Asylum Access Mexico helps refugees from Central America avoid detention, deportation and arrest by providing access to safety and rights.

The UNHCR and Asylum Access are leaders in Central American refugee assistance and resource provision. With programs and policies that provide desperately needed and powerful aid, the Central American refugee crisis and its dangers will hopefully lessen.

Anna O’Toole

Photo: UNHCR

gang violence

In March, El Salvador, a country that has been struggling to reinvent itself since its bitter 12-year civil war between Marxist rebels and the government ended in 1993, experienced the highest levels of gang-related deaths in over a decade.

According to the BBC, March was the deadliest month in El Salvadorian history since the end of the civil war — with over 11 percent of the population engaged in some form of gang-related activity. Much of this violence was, and continues to be, perpetrated by gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street Gang, both of which have origins in Los Angeles, where they were founded by Central American immigrants. Following forced expulsion out of the United States and back to their home countries, these migrants then settled back into life in El Salvador — carving neighborhoods into various gang-controlled territories in the process.

In 2012, El Salvador’s main gangs signed a truce in an effort to end gang-sponsored violence, which initially saw a drop in gang-related death by 40 percent. Since then, however, gang activity has picked up again at an increasingly violent pace. Currently, El Salvador is on the path to becoming one of the deadliest peacetime countries in the world, with roughly 15 homicides occurring every day in the country of six million, according to PBS.

However, since March, there has been a slight decrease in the number of violent incidences. This is thanks to the efforts of private companies, which have begun to recruit former gang members as employees in an effort to help stall the surge of violence currently overtaking the country.

League Central America, for instance, is a private company that works stitching logos onto American University clothing, such as sweaters bound for Harvard and Brown. One out of ten employees at League Central America are former gang members, who mainly hail from the country’s most notorious gangs; the 18th Street Gang and Mara Salvatrucha.

According to one employee, who went by the name Jorge, “There are lots of former gang members who want to change their lives but [don’t] have a way out…because of the lack of work, the poverty.”

Company boss Rodrigo Bolanos, however, stated that companies can help improve the situation, saying, “In the process of suffocating the economy and the country the private companies need to take a position to look for a dignified way out.”

In light of this, private companies like League Central America are making important strides in starting to help the country battle against increasing rates of homicide, by helping former gang members find a way out of poverty by offering them entrance jobs with the chance of upwards mobility.

Jorge has stated that he is eternally grateful to the company for offering him a way out of the gangs and gang violence — and a new chance at life.

Jorge, who only recently started working at the company, is now the chief pattern cutter.

Ana Powell

Sources: BBC 1, BBC 2, PBS
Photo: Flickr

palestinian_territoriesEl Salvador has been called the deadliest peace-time country in the world. It is plagued by violence from gang wars and a growing drug trade. It is estimated that there are 70,000 gang members within the country of six million.

In 2011, 69 people were killed for every 100,000. The country has not experienced this amount of carnage since 1979 when it underwent a 12 year-long civil war.

With all of this violence, El Salvadoran youth cannot help but feel its effects. Gangs have power in many aspects of society, including in the government, the police and schools. Just under 50 percent of kids drop out of school before grade six. This keeps them from attaining essential skills for climbing out of poverty.

In order to give children and teens a safe place off of El Salvador’s gang-filled streets, the U.S. Agency for International Development has created 140 outreach centers in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The hope is that these safe-spaces will serve as “second homes” for thousands of kids where they can learn useful skills and make steps toward favorable futures.

These centers are all parts of the El Salvador Crime and Violence Prevention Project, which is supported by USAID, as well as the El Salvadoran government and some private sector collaborators. Salvadorian youth living in at-risk neighborhoods are able to participate in engaging programs like English classes, computer training, life skills support, tutoring sessions, job training and volunteer opportunities.

Coordinators of the centers explain that when they open up in the morning, “all the children are already knocking on the door because they enjoy the environment in the center and like to participate in the games and lessons we prepare for them.”

Rather than getting involved with the ugly parts of their communities, kids are exposed to beneficial opportunities such as community construction projects. These hands-on programs inspire teamwork, a good work ethic and valuable experience. It also promotes a positive image for kids within their neighborhoods.

The 75 centers within El Salvador are run by volunteers who coordinate activities and create important bonds with each child. Many of them are in their late teens or early 20s and understand the threats that kids coming into the centers are coping with.

“I am always going to listen to them. I am always there for my beneficiaries,” says Karla Portillo. She is a coordinator in La Unión. “This center’s doors are always open for them. They already know this is their second home. For many of them this is their first home.”

Communities in El Salvador are dealing with incredibly high homicide and immigration levels, as people choose to flee the violence and poverty, and young people are dealing with missing parents and family members. Yet even if parents are still at home, they may not be present in the lives of their children.

The centers can make lasting change for the country too. Elder Monie is a community leader of one of El Salvador’s municipalities. She says, “The outreach center is a place where youth can learn and change the reality of the streets.” More children are finishing school, finding good jobs and staying off of the dangerous streets.

Mark Fierstein is an associate administrator for USAID. He says, “one of the things we most focused on is getting at the underlying factors that are promoting the illegal immigration. And that is to create jobs, to reduce poverty, and reduce crime.”

Lillian Sickler

Sources: Creative Associates International 1, Creative Associates International 2, PBS, Youth Build, Insight Crime, CBS News, Huffington Post
Photo: USAID

Since 2004, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) has successfully worked to alleviate poverty in 39 nations worldwide. Created to facilitate “smart U.S. foreign assistance,” the U.S. foreign aid agency takes a unique, country-based approach to addressing the root causes of poverty.

The MCC has approved over $10 billion in programs to promote sustainable economic growth. It partners with low- and middle-income nations to fund country-led initiatives that open markets, educate populations and encourage national and international investment.

“Funding is not a ‘giveaway,’ but a benefit that a country earns through hard work and good policy performance,” said John Hewko, vice president of the MCC from 2004-2009, “Recipient countries identify problems and solutions locally rather than accepting programs that are often viewed as highly politicized and motivated by objectives other than long-term development.”

The MCC first determines the eligibility of a nation to receive funding through a rigorous, competitive selection process. Countries must prove that their existing policies promote good governance, transparency, economic freedom and investment in citizens.

Some governments have dramatically altered their laws to openly endorse market growth. This phenomenon – termed the “MCC effect” – encouraged the nation of El Salvador to reduce business start-up time from 115 to 26 days in order to apply for MCC funding in 2005.

The MCC then analyzes a country’s proposal for funding and determines whether it can realistically attain its goals within the span of a five-year “compact.” A compact requires a country’s physical and financial investment in a program in exchange for MCC funding. A local municipality called a Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) manages the compact implementation, and independent fiscal agents monitor funds thoroughly and transparently.

In 2007, the Millennium Challenge Corporation invested in a $461 million compact with El Salvador focusing on infrastructure and human development. The compact required that local municipalities and beneficiary communities fund a small portion of project costs.

The MCC projects that the compact will provide employment and economic opportunity to over 700,000 Salvadorans in the next 20 years.

Since the compact’s implementation in 2006, over 10,000 people in El Salvador and major cities in the U.S. participated in consultations. Several business owners in the U.S. have invested in long-term, business opportunities in the Northern Zone, which has been impoverished since the Civil War in the 1980s.

MCC efforts in El Salvador have produced tangible results and garnered international acclaim. Upon completion in 2012, the compact expanded electrification to 12 percent more households, provided potable water to 7,600 families and allowed 12,000 Salvadorans – 60 percent women – to access vocational training.

The El Salvador Compact has also expanded economic opportunities for dairy farmers and other small businesses that operate in the isolated Northern Zone. FOMILENIO, the MCA of the El Salvador Compact, managed the construction of the Northern Transnational Highway Project. Improved road connectivity combined with investments in training, technology and product marketing assisted 17,500 producers.

In September 2014, the MCC established another $277 million compact in El Salvador to address a lack of employment and infrastructure to continue its legacy.

“The MCC process has generated significant goodwill in developing countries and contributed to U.S. foreign policy objectives in those where it operates,” said Hewko.

– Paulina Menichiello

Sources: The Brookings Institution, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, The World Bank
Photo: Segura Consulting LLC

sala negra
Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez is pushing the bounds of traditional media in a project called Sala Negra that seeks to shed light on violence and instability in Central America. His project is an offshoot of digital San Salvador-based media outlet El Faro (,) which claims to be the first exclusively online newspaper in Latin America.

Sala Negra has quickly become the center of investigative crime reporting in Central America. Martínez, the project’s director, says that the reality of Latin America is so complex that in order to get to the bottom of what is happening there, every rule of the traditional media must be broken.

The digital venture, which began in 2010, digs up information on violent events in the region in the hopes of reaching a more thorough understanding of why 2 million Central Americans leave their homes for the United States every year, crossing through Mexico’s treacherous territory and enduring countless other difficulties.

Sala Negra is staffed by five reporters, three photographers and one documentarian. Martínez jokes that the fast food industry would never approve of the project’s pace, as each member of the team works on only five in-depth reports each year. The site is driven by quality rather than quantity.

In 2013, Sala Negra released a book called “Crónicas Negras.” The publication is a compilation of 18 of the best investigative pieces from Sala Negra’s first year. Topics revolve around the gang activity, deportations and civil wars that have caused so much turmoil in modern-day Central America. It thoroughly examines the weak states and strong organized crime networks that cause havoc in the most violent countries in the region – El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala.

The strategy of Sala Negra is to move away from fast, sensational news and toward in-depth, investigative reporting. Martínez articulates that this kind of reporting is desperately needed in the region as profound, investigative journalism is extremely scarce, especially in Central America.

In the introduction to “Crónicas Negras,” Sala Negra admits that there are no reliable numbers for those killed in the everyday war being fought in Central America. There are no formal borders, nor does the war have a name. Yet, the text laments, it is the worst war because the people who fight in it have forgotten the value of life for being so in love with death.

Journalists like Martínez and his colleagues at Sala Negra embody honorable, responsible journalism. Their mission is to uncover the truth behind violence and migrant flows in and out of Central America in order to know how to move forward and bring a bit of justice to such a tumultuous area.

— Kayla Strickland

Sources: Sala NegraEl Faro
Photo: Starmedia