Poverty in Guatemala
Chase Mangrum, a rising senior at Harding University majoring in Exercise Science and minoring in Medical Missions, recently spent six weeks in Guatemala in May and June as part of Health Talents International’s Medical Evangelism Training. She covered some ground during her trip, traveling to four different spots in total, and accomplishing a wide array of activities, such as taking Spanish language classes, living with multiple host families and working in local medical and dental clinics along the way. Mangrum came back equipped to share observations in an interview with The Borgen Project that underscore eight major facts about poverty in Guatemala.

8 Facts About Poverty in Guatemala

  1. Wealth distribution is unbalanced. Mangrum observes that bigger cities like Guatemala City, Antigua and Xela are modern and prosperous, but the villages she visited like Chicacao, Suchitepéquez along the coast and Chichicastenango, El Quiche in the highlands, were poorer. However, she also admits that the differences between wealth in towns and villages is not completely straightforward, explaining, “People who live in the smaller towns may seem to have more than those out in the villages, but they don’t own any land so most times they are still what you would consider impoverished.” Statistics corroborate Mangrum’s experiences. The vast majority of the population does live in poverty. Though those in the big cities are relatively better off, still 75 percent of the population lives in poverty and 58 percent in extreme poverty.
  2. The indigenous, non-Spanish-speaking population has limited access to education and opportunities. She noticed stark differences between Chicacao, where the majority of inhabitants are descended from Spanish colonists and speak Spanish, and Chichicastenango, where the predominant language is a Mayan dialect called Quiche. Again, statistics back up Mangrum’s observations. More than 90 percent of the indigenous population survives on an income below the poverty line, a higher percentage than the average for Guatemala.
  3. Water systems and waste management remain undeveloped and unhygienic in many parts of Guatemala. Mangrum shares: “The homes I stayed in had a water source but it was not pure; [w]e had to filter our water to drink. Some places have flushing toilets and showers, but there are many places that are latrine only and people take bucket showers.” Many of the country’s water systems are considered to be in partial or complete failure by Water for People. However, hope exists as 93 percent of Guatemalans have access to improved water, and the rural population only lags a little behind, with 87 percent access.
  4. Many depend on farming inherited land as their sole source of income, contributing to cyclical poverty in Guatemala. As 65 percent of the land is controlled by 2.5 percent of farms, land is passed down through families and most consider farming one of their only options. Do to perceived limited opportunities, many Guatemalans whose parents lived in poverty remain trapped in poverty.
  5. Guatemalans often depend on informal jobs for their income. The United Nations estimates that 70 percent of Guatemalans are employed informally, meaning they do not receive any kinds of benefits that come from a formal contract and employer.
  6. Inexpensive diets of rice and tortillas resulting from poverty in Guatemala make diabetes a prevalent issue. Mangrum believes Type 2 diabetes is the most prominent health issue she encountered in Guatemala. She related this to the corn tortillas that were a cheap diet staple for many of her host families. At seven and a half percent, the diabetes rate in Guatemala is not beyond help, but 47.7 percent of the population is overweight, 16.4 percent of the population is obese and 12.4 percent of the population is considered physically inactive. All of these risk factors make potential growth rates of diabetes a concern.
  7. Fatalistic views from generations of poverty in Guatemala have caused rampant dental hygiene problems. Tooth decay is one of the main issues seen by dentists in Guatemala, attributed to lack of personal knowledge and prioritization of dental hygiene, fluoride lack and unhealthy diets. Mangrum explains this worldview she encountered as a hopeless belief that because one’s parents had bad teeth, no amount of prevention can keep the next generation from having bad teeth as well. This meant that most of the patients Mangrum saw during her time in local dental offices came to have their teeth extracted rather than having preventive check-ups. Mangrum sees a lot of hope for addressing poverty in Guatemala through medical missions. She says, “In societies like Guatemala where there [are] still traditional healing practices that influence health care, it is crucial to address the patient’s spiritual health. Many times they believe they are sick due to an unbalance in their body and spirit or that something in their life like sin is affecting their health.”
  8. Poverty in Guatemala cyclically continues because many Guatemalans cannot afford education past elementary school. Most Guatemalan children must help provide for their families, making secondary education a luxury few can afford. Enrollment in primary school is very successful, nearly 100 percent, but more than two million Guatemalans from ages 15-24 do not meet the criteria to enter the workforce. Therefore, they remain on those family farms, excluded from the economy by the farming elite, or they join the informal workforce, and therefore in poverty.

Ways to Get Involved

Thanks to Mangram’s on-the-ground perspective, one can see the validity of these top eight facts about poverty in Guatemala. With such an eye-opening view, many may ask what can be done to aid in some of these issues; one of the best methods is emblematized by Magnum — go offer assistance directly in the country itself through established aid organizations.

Other options are more remote in nature — contacting representatives in favor of foreign aid legislation, donating to sustainable outreach and development programs, sponsoring local businesspeople — but no matter the route, aid to Guatemala can be as effective and eye-opening as in Mangram’s journey.

– Charlotte Preston
Photo: Flickr