President’s Plan to Fight Poverty in Costa Rica

On Thursday, March 25, 2010, President-elect Laura Chinchilla announced the creation of a new ministry, the Ministry of Social Welfare and Development. The stated aim of this new ministry is to sort out and reorganize the dozens of current programs designed to fight poverty.

Poverty in Costa Rica? According to official statistics, Costa Rica has less unemployment than the United States of America, only 6.4% as opposed to around 10% up north.

If you believe official statistics, I have some tickets for sale to meet the Easter Bunny a week from Sunday in Morazan Park. Perhaps you are more inclined to believe an International Monetary Fund research paper that estimates that 40% of Costa Rica’s GDP comes from the informal and underground economy.

Another government agency, the Mixed Institute of Social Help (IMAS) reports there are 362,000 families living in poverty in Costa Rica. Given that the average personal income for a working class adult in Costa Rica is about $400 per month you can assume anyone in “poverty” is really at the bottom of the economic ladder.

In any case, President-elect Chinchilla has announced a new ministry. Somehow I am reminded of a scene from Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian.’


I hope I can be pardoned for my cynicism, but another ministry isn’t going to do diddly squat about poverty and anybody that thinks it will is, to put it simply, a fool.

Don’t misunderstand me, I support the efforts of those who are trying, in their own ways, to help out the poor. I do it myself, though it’s just a drop in the ocean. I have spent a fair amount of money buying school supplies to get a family’s four children through another year of school, more than once. Fighting poverty one family at a time sounds like a nice slogan, and somebody may already have it patented. But for all the programs like CARE or Save the Children, there are more poor people on the planet than ever.

So is the struggle against poverty hopeless? Well, it is hopeless unless some big changes happen, and although I don’t expect these changes to ever take place in Costa Rica, I will boldly state what it will take, from my ivory tower.

1. A massive government sponsored campaign to promote birth control. Standing in the way? Ignorance, of course, but more powerful still is the Catholic Church. Before you call me anti-Catholic, let me state that I was baptized and raised Catholic, and was a practicing member until about the age of 16. President-elect Chinchilla is still a practicing member, and a devout one, if we are to believe what has been written about her. The Church’s stand on contraception is unequivocal. Artificial means are a mortal sin, which means if you die between the time you use a condom and your next scheduled confession, you go to HELL. If the Church holds that as a tenet of faith, fine. The problem is that the Church does not limit itself to the spiritual. It is a powerful force in Costa Rican politics. Its influence can be easily seen in the ‘abstinence only’ sex education policy of the school system. Those who live here can easily see how well THAT works.

The reason why lowering the birth rate would be beneficial to reducing poverty is rather simple. With fewer people competing for already scarce jobs, there would be less unemployed people. I know there are those who disagree, based on faith that growth is always good and someday economic output will be so great everybody will be living in a paradise on earth. I just sold one of my Easter Bunny tickets to one of them.

2. Increase taxes in a fair way. I am under no illusions this will fly either. In the words of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters:

Money, it’s a crime
Share it fairly
But don’t take a slice of my pie

Fair taxes = ones you (or I) don’t pay. Anybody who has spent any time in Costa Rica knows there is plenty of work that needs to be done. As a spoiled Gringo, I would love to see sidewalks without holes in them, clean rivers, clean streets, street signs, decent roads, inside plumbing for all, adequate jails and prisons, an efficient and professional police force, safe bridges, no lines at the public hospitals, health care for everyone, and on and on. And there are plenty of workers willing, if perhaps not (at the moment) able to do the work.

But of course, the problem is, who is going to pay for all that? At the moment, nobody is paying for any of it. I realize my solutions sound socialistic. They are.

But please don’t worry… none of this is going to come to pass. Those who run Costa Rica have no intention of losing even a tiny slice of the pie. This probably means your slice, whatever it is, is safe too. Unless, of course, they can figure a way to shave a little off your slice and add it to theirs.

Either way it isn’t going to go to the unwashed masses. Instead you can think of new government ministries as a kind of jobs program for the families of the Costa Rican elite.

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  1. I couldn’t agree with you more! As a newcomer to CR and a budding pensionado, I am falling in love with this country. BUT I am not blind to the many shortcomings nor to the inordinate and, IMHO, destructive role of the Catholic Church. Given all the revealed corruption and worse in that flawed institution over the last 10-15 years, I really don’t see how anyone can still put their “faith” there. But that’s another column, isn’t it? Thanks for your thoughtful posts.

  2. I say close the casinos from 5am to 3pm and put about 2000 Ticos out of work, that should help the situation, maybe raid all the MPs and arrest the uneducated young women trying to feed their kids ( no child support enforcement)so far the gun is pointed directly at the foot.

  3. John Dungan says:

    Please don’t kid yourself about the Catholic Church. There are many practicing Catholics who routinely use contraceptives, despite what the Church preaches. Many women actively seek the pill and are therefore excused for medical reasons.

    Kat Sunlove said something about “revealed corruption and worse in that flawed institution over the last 10-15 years….”
    Please be more specific about that statement. Frankly, I think that is more than a little harsh, and wide of any truth. It reads like your personal prejudice is shining through. Especially, if you’re referring to individual Priests who have gotten in trouble, and the manner in which the Church has mishandled those situations. You should study your history a bit more, and you would know that these conditions are as old as mankind, and have nothing to do with the Catholic Church.

    I think Cubadave is closer to a real suggestion………but, wait……that’s already been done, hasn’t it?

    Ultimately, I have to agree with the article’s conclusions, because CR is no different than the U. S. in the sense that whenever politicians have a problem called to their attention, the only “solutions” they ever come up with inevitably require more study, new laws (’cause they can’t understand the already existing ones?), new agencies (more beauracracy), and – of course – more taxes. CR could indeed fight this problem a lot cheaper by applying some simple and logical solutions, but politics is, after all, all about show.

  4. No. Cal. Refugee says:

    John Dungan,

    You are right, many practicing Catholics use birth control, especially in the USA. However, the point I was trying to make is that the Church is a major political force in Costa Rica, and has enough clout to stop

    “A massive government sponsored campaign to promote birth control,”

    which was my suggestion. They had enough clout to make ‘abstinence only’ the official policy for teaching sex education in public schools. Any other issues regarding the Catholic Church are beyond the scope of this blog.

  5. John Dungan says:

    Actually, my remarks were not addressed so much to you, as they were to Kat’s post. Let’s not forget that abstinence is still the only accepted teaching in the states as well. What I always wonder about is how is that we were largely unaware of all the sex going on when we were teen-agers……………I remember they scared the living bejesus out of us in Junior High (boys separate from girls, naturally).

  6. I agree with Cubadave…. what the church teaches is totally different from what goes on on the ground. We see so many teenage single mothers… they can’t even fend for themselves leave alone their children. And another govt ministry is hardly the solution. They will probably spend a whole lot of money still teaching more abstinence !

  7. I would suggest legalizing abortion in Costa Rica. That would be a GREAT start to fight poverty……..oh wait, the Catholic Church would never allow that to happen. Bummer!

  8. Hmm is anyone else experiencing problems with the images on this blog loading?
    I’m trying to find out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.

    Any responses would be greatly appreciated.