Percentage of population in poverty before and after increase in food prices:
Population (millions)* -- Poverty now -- Poverty after**
47.5 -- 52% -- 54.7%
13.3 -- 51.4% -- 59.4%
7.7 -- 69.5% -- 73.4%
109 -- 20.6% -- 27.5%
28.8 -- 44.2% -- 49.5%
**Based on a 30 percent increase in food prices
Source: Inter-American Development Bank
To buy food and pay debts, Horalio Ramirez’s family depends on what he and his brothers send back to Guatemala. But with the economic slowdown in the United States, the family manages without that expected income.
“The situation here is becoming harder and harder,” said Mr. Ramirez, who works at Consolidated Baking Co. in Chattanooga making ice cream cones. “Your family thinks that because you are here you have a lot of money, but after paying all the bills, rent and buying food, you hardly have anything left.”
As tighter immigration enforcement and sluggish economy make it harder for immigrants to send money back home, Latin America is having its own economic crunch, putting extra pressure on those who help support their families in other countries.
In countries such as Mexico, increases in food prices immediately could bring the total number of people in poverty to 29 million, a rise of almost 7 million, according to a report by the Inter-American Development Bank, a Washington, D.C.-based organization pushing for economic and social development in Latin America and the Caribbean. In Guatemala, the total number of people in poverty could rise to 8 million, an increase of about 2 million, according to the report. Guatemalans comprise a significant percentage of the local Hispanic population, according to local advocates.
“Worldwide food prices soared 68 percent on average between January of 2006 and March of 2008,” according to the organization. “The rise has been especially steep for some basic food items such as corn and wheat, with prices more than doubling in the period.”
Mr. Ramirez, who speaks Spanish, said he tries to send his family about $500 every two months, but he realizes their needs are much greater.
“With less work (that) means less money, and less money means they can’t send home as much money as they used to,” said Dr. Oralia Preble-Niemi, head of the foreign languages and literature department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “It’s like dominoes. Their bosses are feeling the pain, then they’re feeling the pain and then their dependents in their country are feeling the pain.”
Lino Morales, manager at Carniceria Loa, a Latin American store on Broad Street, said he has noticed people sending money to their home countries less frequently in recent days.
“We’ve noticed the change mainly since February,” he said, speaking in Spanish. “Now they may send a little bit more money, but less often.”
He said on average immigrants send about $200 per week or $350 every two weeks.
Factors contributing to the price increases in Latin America include rising incomes in China and India, which have fueled demand for food and the increase in the use of corn to make ethanol, the bank reported.
“The use of corn for ethanol to supplement lack of oil due to the oil crisis has impacted certainly the economies of countries for whom corn is a staple like Mexico and Guatemala,” Dr. Preble-Niemi said.
Mr. Ramirez’s family in Guatemala lives off agriculture, but he said the $75 a week his father makes growing corn and other grains is not enough to feed a family of five.
“They spent a lot more money growing the products than what he makes selling it,” he said.
To calculate the impact of higher food prices on poverty, researchers assumed a permanent 30 percent price increase in corn, rice, wheat, soybean, sugar and beef and that the international price increases will be fully passed on to consumers, the report states.
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...