Poverty and inequality in costa rica: a look beyond income inequality

Arias, Rafael (1); Sanchez, Leonardo (2) (2018). 'Poverty and Inequality in Costa Rica: a look beyond income inequality' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.



Rafael Arias Ramírez, Ph.D.

MSc. Leonardo Sánchez Hernández

This paper is aimed to analyze, by using a multidimensional approach and the method of Unsatisfied Basic Needs (UBN), the spatial characteristics of poverty and inequality in Costa Rica and their distribution according to urban and rural areas. The purpose is to emphasize that although income level is an important factor to determine poverty for income insufficiency, this is not the only one. Thus, an analysis of territorial and spatial factors is applied to help explaining asymmetries in the access to public services, such as public education, public health, and labor market opportunities; all of which are aspects that influence the levels of poverty and inequality.


In his book Development as Freedom, the Nobel in Economics, Amartya Sen (2000), understands poverty and inequality as a multidimensional phenomenon, which transcends income distribution. Based on the capability approach, Sen also considers the importance of human capabilities as the basis for evaluating living standards and the quality of life for people having the opportunities to fulfill their aspirations (Sen A. (2003). Enhancing quality of life requires to breaking down the vicious cycle of poverty and inequality and the privation of objective needs as well as subjective needs, that it brings about.

Within the main causes explaining the increasing levels of poverty and inequality face by important segments of the Costa Rican population we have the increasing level of per capita income inequality, limited access to social services, productive assets and insufficient opportunities in the labor market.  These problems worsen in peripheral (rural) regions of the country as well as in marginalized and segregated urban areas.


Our research shows that in Costa Rica people with the greater levels of (UBN) are highly concentrated in the territory (Arias y Sanchez,2012). By using geo-statistics techniques, applied to cartography and data from the Census of 2011, 107 clusters of high incidence of poverty and inequality were identified.  These clusters are in about 16% of the total territory, which shows that a relatively small portion of the country concentrates the greater shortcomings regarding access to education, health, housing, food, and labor market opportunities.  

One of the main findings is that even when the relative incidence of poverty by UBN corresponds to rural areas, if we look it in absolute terms, we then see that poor people are highly concentrated in urban areas.  This is particularly evident for the Great Metropolitan Area (GMA), that only represents 4 per cent of the entire territory, but have 26 dense clusters of poverty, followed by the Chorotega Region with 19, the Huetar Caribe with 18, the Pacifico Central with 12, the Brunca with 12, the Huetar Norte with 11 and the rest of the Central Region with 9. 

The high concentration of clusters in urban areas is accompanied by social segregation, which is worsening inequality and exclusion.  To confirm the last point, density of people, with at least one UBN by each square kilometer is 4 times greater in the clusters of poverty, compared with the national average.


Different studies on socioeconomic segregation (Pujol, Sánchez y Pérez, 2011) show that this problem has been increasing in the last two decades, especially within low-income groups. For instance, a 71,3 per cent of people in poverty in the GMA occupy 20 per cent of this geographical area. Meanwhile, in the Rest of the Central Region, the relationship is even stronger since 85,4 per cent of people in poverty live in only 13 per cent of the area.  The same pattern happens for the rest of the regions. For example, Huetar Caribe (84 per cent in 21 per cent of the area) and Pacifico Central (84 per cent in the 21 per cent of the area).


The findings of this study help to understand the multidimensional character of poverty and inequality and their geographical expressions.  It helps to design and implement public policy and programs that consider the particularities and characteristics of the different communities (their needs, agency and aspirations). It also makes contributions for the implementation of institutional arrangements to promote capabilities through better access and distribution to public education, health care, adequate housing, food, and active participation in the labor market.  




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