How Do We Understand Poverty? Social Representations of Poverty in Relation to Mexico’s Middle Class

Photo by Daniel Lozano Valdés on Unsplash

By María Villalpando


The prospect of belonging to an egalitarian society seems to become ever more distant. In Mexico, the problem posed by poverty and inequality is nothing new; it has been part of the country’s reality since it first became an independent nation (Cabrera, 2006). According to the most recent Poverty Rankings at a national level by the CONEVAL, 43.6% of the population (or 53.4 million people) live in poverty[1], while 7.6% (9.4 million people) live in extreme poverty[2]. The vast concentration of wealth, in the hands of a privileged minority who holds economic power, stands in sharp contrast to the poverty status attributed to half of the population. According to data released by the ENIGH-16[3], the ratio between the highest decile’s income and that of the lowest decile is of 21:1; without social program transfers, the ratio is 57:1. This all reveals an alarming inequity in how opportunities are distributed among different segments of the population. Those who come from less-favored households encounter an increasingly-hostile milieu in relation to access to basic opportunities for well-being—such as education, employment and healthcare.

Until a few decades ago, studies on poverty tended to favor a descriptive approach—focused on observing, measuring and describing poverty. This approach does not fully account for the causes, permanence and propagation of this phenomenon (Abigail, Quintero Soto & Hernández Espitia, A, 2011; Bayón, 2013; Cattani, 2008; Cimadamore & Donato Biocca, 2013; Lepianka, Gelissen & Oorschot, 2010; Small, Harding & Lamont, 2010). We need to better understand the roots of poverty to explain its persistence—there has been a growing acknowledgement of poverty’s multidimensional character (Sen, 2000; Townsend, 2003; Paugman, 1995; Castel, 2014; Oyen, 2004).

This present research’s guiding concern is that of transforming poverty into a problem for sociological reflection—seen as a social construct and convergence point for material and symbolic dimensions, as well as for discourses, representations and relations of power. Our aim is to provide an account of how this phenomenon is experienced, tolerated and propagated by Mexican society. It is important to understand the notions of poverty held by those who are not poor; this allows us to explore public discourse about this problem.

A key premise for this research work is the assumption that both the perceptions on what causes poverty and the dominant perceptions used to describe it are crucial to understanding the relations that perpetuate and propagate it. In this sense, we consider that the way the upper and middle classes in Mexico interpret and conceive poverty molds and defines the interactions between these social classes and less-favored people.

Poverty’s Social Construction

Poverty is commonly explained from a material lack perspective; many studies conceive this phenomenon as a problem of good or bad use of resources on the part of individuals and the societies to which they belong. Such approaches—which focus on quantitative factors—only reveal one of poverty’s multiple dimensions and depend on a limited perspective of unsatisfied needs, lack of income and low consumption levels. Poverty, however, is a multidimensional and dynamic problem; it is neither limited to income nor static, but the result of cumulative processes.

The way a society conceives poverty is directly related to what it believes its causes, consequences, and traits to be. It is imperative that we understand this phenomenon’s social construction to overcome stagnant descriptive approaches and thus redefine the problem.

When poverty is described and quantified as a condition which individuals enter of their own accord, those individuals become dissociated from the social aspects and relations that give rise to the phenomenon. The role played by the “non-poor” thus recedes into the background. Failing to correlate the creation of poverty with that of wealth tacitly overlooks the causes which generate and propagate the social construction of the phenomenon here analyzed (Cimadamore & Donato Biocca, 2013). A sociological study of poverty necessitates taking all social groups into account (Bayón, 2013). Poverty is not an isolated phenomenon, but one that emerges and propagates jointly with wealth.

Poverty’s Symbolic Dimensions and the Social Class Divide

Identifying how we conceive poor individuals and their role in society is a key element to the study of poverty from a sociological perspective. George Simmel affirms that our approach to this phenomenon cannot be limited to suffered deprivations but must also observe the aid which individuals either receive or are believed to be entitled to receive. Different ways of interacting with poverty give rise to a series of differing social reactions to this phenomenon. It is from these that we can infer the existence, or not, of systems which stigmatize unprivileged individuals—distancing them from the society to which they belong, thus contributing to inequality. In this present research, we seek to account for poverty’s intangible dimensions to study the symbolic thresholds between the poor and privileged classes.

The study of poverty’s cultural dimensions helps us understand how people delimitate symbolic boundaries or interpret their life experiences. The existence of symbolic limits or barriers—conceptual distinctions among objects, individuals, and practices which influence social action—generally justifies moral hierarchies among groups and divisions in a society (Small, Harding & Lamont, 2010). The act of building and maintaining such limits is known as boundarywork (Small, Harding & Lamont, 2010) and refers to the differentiation between oneself and others; it is founded on the construction of an identity, based on common traits and a sense of belonging.

The notion that those who are poor are part of the “other” denotes how they are treated in a different manner than the rest of society. These perceptions reflect the differences among individuals and justify the need to isolate, control or even deny those who are not considered as equal. Otherness is not a state inherent to poverty, but an act of rejection, erasure, and indifference. As Ruth Lister notes: “poverty must not only be understood as a problem related to disadvantage and material deprivation, but as a social relation which is corrosive and related to shame” (Lister, 2004: 7).

The construction of “otherness” is closely related to other social processes, such as the creation of stereotypes—individuals create categories which they later identify with stereotyped beliefs. This process is related to a discriminatory categorization, which assumes certain qualities and depicts certain social groups as homogeneous (Lister, 2004). Stereotypes “translate cultural differences into otherness, in the interest of order, power and control” (Pickering: 204). This is a strategy for symbolic exclusion, blaming others for their situation—thus legitimizing inferiority—which becomes a process for “dehumanizing” poor individuals.

Poor individuals suffer from the actions of other members of society; for it is the “non-poor” who commonly establish most conceptual constructs about poverty. The upper and middle classes’ prejudices are internalized by the poor. This profound alienation mitigates the experience of inequality, for the enormous social gap between the wealthy and poor hinders any sense of identification or empathy.

Regarding Methodological Strategy

Between December 2017 and January 2019, I held two semi-directed focus groups. The participants were adults between the ages of 29 and 65 years old. Sessions lasted about 120 minutes. Both focus groups took place at a secular, co-ed private school in the western municipality of Cuajimalpa, in Mexico City.

In order to explore and acquaint ourselves with the representations of poverty by Mexico’s middle class, we adopted a qualitative methodological strategy. It allows us to display the truth behind certain notions about poverty, reveals how complex this phenomenon’s social construction is, and opens the possibility to raise new questions which may contribute to a better understanding of it. We used the focus groups method, for it is a qualitative technique which prompts a discussion around a topic and allows participants to interact with each other and opine in a spontaneous and authentic manner. In this sense, focus groups allowed us to explore the knowledge which was both already socially shared and that which was created in the discussions the participants had. In order to make the sample homogenous, we sought to work with individuals whose common background was determined by the profession they practiced—in this case that of Secondary or Preparatory School teachers, who held a bachelor’s degree or higher, and who were part of the aforementioned school’s faculty.


In order to analyze how causes of poverty are explained, we employed a typology which distinguishes two general dimensions. The first is structural-individualistic, where the phenomenon is explained from a personal or collective level, and the second is blame-destiny, where poverty is seen as a result of agency. The data we obtained from focus groups allowed us to explore how the middle and upper classes in Mexico comprehend poverty.

The first key finding is that members of Mexico’s middle class predominantly hold the view that poverty can be explained as an individual problem, which results from a combination of certain deficiencies characteristic to poor individuals and their lack of ambition to improve their life quality. Although Mexico’s middle class does recognize a few structural obstacles—such as an adverse environment and scarce social mobility—individual effort is conceived as a key factor, which is generally absent from these individuals’ actions and behavior. Consequently, poor individuals appear to be rational and free actors, whose capability for action is sufficient to come out of their present life situation.

From an individualist perspective, poverty is stripped from social and relational aspects; the role of non-poor agents recedes into the background (Lawson & St. Clair 2009). Focus group participants often described poverty as a condition from which individuals do not seek to escape, going as far as to characterize poor Mexicans as conformists. Ambition and hard work emerge as the solution to precarious life situations. Notwithstanding, it was acknowledged that the lack of opportunities for well-remunerated employment and the job insecurity in Mexico do reduce the chance individuals have to be full-fledged citizens.

Population differentiation based on socio-economic condition is one of the main axes of differentiation in contemporary Mexican society (Saraví 2008). In this present study, that differentiation has special relevance, as it is also considered a basis for hierarchical division, wherein the justification of privilege contributes to the legitimization of inequality. Delving into poor individuals’ life conditions in Mexico allowed us to corroborate there exists a view in which poor individuals are inferiorized, perceived as foreign—or rather otherized. It is worth mentioning that the most frequently repeated referent to poverty is that of the female domestic employee; this indicates that the interactions the middle and upper classes have with disadvantaged people mainly occur via job positions wherein the latter are subordinate and controlled by the former—rather than in scenarios where they interact as fellow citizens and equals, as would be the case with interactions in schools, hospitals, the public transport, for example.

The stereotypes and prejudices expressed here reveal to us an interpretation of poor individuals’ behavior as homogenous and divergent from the rest of society. They coincide with the view of a “culture of poverty” coined by Lewis, which is closely related to stigmatization in society’s least privileged sectors. Goffman (1970) highlights how stigma represents an “inability to attain full social acceptance,” which becomes evident in the present study whenever we observe expressions of disgust in the middle classes toward behaviors considered “characteristic” of poor individuals. Nonetheless, we also observe—although in a lesser degree and in a somewhat timid fashion—a critical view toward the processes of stigmatization; there emerge certain perceptions, expressed by some of the focal group members, which acknowledge the negative effects of said processes.

It is fundamental for us to question the nature of this stigmatization of poverty and to inquire into the social relations which maintain and propagate this phenomenon. In this present study, we identified three distinct general “types” of poor individuals—the homeless poor, the urban poor and the rural poor. This allows us to identify the reactions presented by each one of them and analyze the social constructs which exist around said categorizations. We were able to identify the different ways in which these poverty types are conceived, as well as how the causes normally attributed to them are related to the corresponding reactions they receive. Even though these results should not be used as part of a generalization, they do lead us in the right direction in order to understand how each type of poverty is interpreted from the perspective of non-involved subjects. The fact that poor individuals are not considered as an entirely homogenous group stands out; although an individualistic view for explaining poverty does predominate, each type of poverty is attributed particular traits and behaviors.

Regarding urban poverty, prejudices denote how this type of poverty is conceived as one that individuals enter out of choice. There is a marked unawareness in urban areas about what life is like in poor sectors; this causes them to be associated with feelings of disgust and fear. Moreover, the ways Mexico’s middle class refers to this type of poverty reflect their deeply internalized stigmas. It is of interest to stress how, when analyzing the way Mexico’s urban poverty is interpreted, negative images and criminalizing representations predominate—for poverty is conflated with crime and unlawful actions.

When we contrast urban and rural poverty, we observe a split between those considered as “deserving” and “not deserving” of aid. The rural poor are conceived as worthy of aid because the disadvantages they face are considered as beyond their control to change—especially if they are of indigenous origin. There is a predominant view that public services and education are more abundant and of better quality in the city; the rural poor are therefore allowed to live out of charity. Notwithstanding, it must be noted how disadvantaged conditions and deprivation in cities become more strenuous when faced by the scarce, if not altogether absent, access to opportunities to improve one’s quality of life. This all adds up to what Bayón (2015) describes as “second-class citizenship” wherein spatial segregation of poor individuals is magnified in urban enclaves.

With respect to how street poverty and vagrancy are interpreted, there is a predominant view that those who panhandle or work in the streets are after instant gratification and do not plan for the future or seek to change their living situation. Nonetheless, this interpretation of poverty does mention structural causes for the phenomenon, but these are only superficial and do not account for Mexico’s ever-growing inequality. This is to say, there is a prevailing idea that poverty is a way of life which requires a certain treatment.

We find the common denominator to be a lack of empathy and profound alienation between privileged and disadvantaged—evidence of no shared social experiences and of controlled and strongly-hierarchical interactions. These relations and interpretations account for a “we” and “them” dichotomy but not for peer interaction. In essence, rural poverty comes out as the most widely-tolerated type of poverty—personified in the image of the indigenous poor popularized by adverts for social programs which focus on extreme rural poverty. This stands in stark contrast with the perception of urban poverty, wherein we encounter fear and rejection toward the young and disdain toward those panhandle or work in the streets due to assumed comfort and lack of ambition.

Lack of recognition of structural elements gives way to impotence toward the gravity of this situation. The State is not seen as a guarantor of rights and of a more equitable redistribution of wealth. On occasion, the private sector is seen as responsible for taking action toward solving this situation. It is important to stress how the State remains absent and invisible; there are very few mentions of it as a responsible entity or as one which regulates well-being.

Social politics related to poverty are highly determined by whichever notion is assumed about the origin of this phenomenon (Boltvinik & Damian, 2004). In Mexico, conditional monetary transfer programs have been predominantly supported—wherein only those who correspond to certain criteria, strictly focused on extreme poverty, are eligible. It must be noted that the type of assumptions behind the conceptual definition of poverty used by these focalized programs corresponds to the statements by this study’s participants.

A dynamic and comprehensive focus is necessary to formulate effective public policies and to prevent situations of poverty from becoming irreversible—thus deepening inequality in our society (Bayón C., 2006). As we continue our search for an alternative focus when thinking about poverty in Mexico, we must take relational dimensions into account. This is a structural problem, which is related to distribution of resources and opportunities on a material, symbolic and social scale. It is time to bring interpretations and reactions to poverty to the forefront of discussion, as well as to incorporate acknowledgement as a factor for academic analysis and public policy.

María Villalpando is a Masters of Development Practice student. As a sociologist, she is passionate about understanding poverty from a multidisciplinary perspective with a particular focus on Latin America.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.


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[1] In Mexico, by mandate of the General Law for Social Development (LGDS, Ley General de Desarrollo Social), poverty measurement is multidimensional; it takes into account both economic well-being and social rights. It defines as poor those with at least one social deprivation and an income below the wellbeing line.

[2] Extreme poverty is defined as not having a large-enough income to afford the necessary nutrients for a healthy lifestyle, being below the Minimum Wellbeing Line, or having more than three social deprivations (CONEVAL, 2014). Please note this varies depending on whether it is a rural or an urban area.

[3] National Survey of Household Incomes and Expenditures, 2016. The main objective of this survey is to provide the public with a statistical overview of how households’ incomes and costs perform in relation to amount, provenance and distribution.