Even though greater equality is a prerequisite for a happier and more stable society, inequality continues to grow worldwide. But how do we tackle inequality? Colombia, one of South America’s most unequal countries, is making the rich pay for the poor. A noble idea, but does it really work?
Julietta has been working as a cleaning lady for several years. Every morning, she gets up at the crack of dawn to take the bus to work at five o'clock sharp. The 15 kilometre commute (9.3 miles) takes no less than two hours for the simple reason that Julietta, like thousands of others, lives in one of the 'stratum 1 neighbourhoods', just about the poorest districts of the Colombian capital of Bogota. She is on her way to clean where the rich live, in stratum 6. Julietta is not the only one who commutes daily from the poor south to the rich north of the city, and that has consequences for traffic.
Overcrowded roads caused by segregation is only one of the negative side effects of Colombia’s famous stratification system. Thirty-five years ago, the idea arose of dividing the Colombian population on the basis of their socio-economic status. The aim was to create a system in which the richest people subsidise access to utilities for the poorest. The seed of this idea was already planted in the 1960s, when concepts such as equality and solidarity were incorporated into the constitution.
Households in the Colombian capital are assigned a label from 1 to 6. The higher your stratum, the wealthier you are supposed to be. However, the division is not based on income, but on how your house and the neighbourhood in which it is located look. The size of the house’s façade, possible front garden and garage, the condition of the roof, as well as the density of the buildings and the quality of public space are among the factors taken into account. In theory, a stratum 1 house can therefore be situated next to a house in stratum 6. In practice, however, there is much more segregation and concentration.
Someone’s stratum determines how much they pay for water and energy. In this system, the rich districts subsidise the poor. Today, stratum 5 and 6 inhabitants pay additional taxes on utilities, while stratum 1, 2 and 3 receive subsidies. Stratum 4, on the other hand, does not have to pay anything extra, but does not receive anything either: they pay the value determined by the supplier as a cost for the utilities. A noble idea, but does it really work?
Households in the Colombian capital are assigned a label from 1 to 6. The higher your stratum, the wealthier you are supposed to be. However, the division is not based on income, but on how your house and the neighbourhood in which it is located look.
A divided city with divided opinions
"It’s a very social system in my opinion", says Sebastian Joya Shaker, an engineering student who lives in Bogota. "It is financed by the wealthiest inhabitants and ensures that we, unlike the rest of South America, all have access to drinking water."
However, not everyone is convinced of the efficiency of the system. "The problem is that households in the fifth and sixth stratum are an absolute minority", explains Professor Carlos Sepúlveda (Universidad del Rosario). He examined the economic side of Bogota’s stratification system and found that it is no longer self-sufficient. "Only 4% of the capital's population lives in the fifth or sixth stratum and therefore contributes financially to the system."
And that is not enough to maintain it. "There are currently too many people who earn enough, but do not want to move to a higher stratum because they would have to pay extra taxes", Sepúlveda adds. This means that the state has to help out and the system actually becomes very expensive. In order to rectify this, there is an urgent need to adapt the techniques for measuring the population and their income.
Segregation = discrimination?
The financial dimension of the stratification system only highlights one side of the issue. The social ranking is also often considered to be segregating and even discriminating. According to a study by the Secretaría Distrital de Planeación, as many as seventy percent of the inhabitants belonging to the fourth, fifth or sixth stratum live in the north of the city, whereas people belonging to the lowest strata are overrepresented in the southern part of the capital.
This not only results in long traffic jams towards places where there is a lot of work, but also in a very distinct separation between rich and poor, especially among newcomers. Six months ago, Mónica Parada fled from Venezuela to Bogota with her six-year-old son. When the boy first went to his new school, the first thing the other children asked him was "which stratus he belonged to". "I was very shocked when I heard that", admits Mónica, "and honestly, I don't know if I want my son to grow up in such a hierarchical society."
Julietta also complains about the label that the stratification system attaches to her: "I am very happy to get water and electricity at a reduced price, but the way people look down on me when they hear that I belong to stratum 1 is tough and humiliating."
Moreover, the system prevents social mobility, according to some. Rocio Cárdenas, a social worker living in the capital, believes that it is very difficult to move from one stratum to another. "It is not just electricity and water bills that suddenly become much more expensive. If you move to a higher stratum, you will also have to pay more for your rent, local supermarket and school. You need a considerable wage increase to make up for this." Cárdenas is not convinced that everyone even wants to improve their stratum: "Why would you pay more if you can do with less? I think that is why some people deliberately choose not to take care of their houses. They are protected by the system."
According to a study, as many as seventy percent of the inhabitants belonging to the fourth, fifth or sixth stratum live in the north of the city, whereas people belonging to the lowest strata are overrepresented in the southern part of the capital.
And what about equality?
John González, a sociologist who lives in Bogota, disagrees: "In Colombia, we do not have a system of benefits, which means that nobody is 'protected' by the system." Moreover, González questions the accusation that the system would create segregation. "It is a bit like 'the chicken or the egg' question. Maybe segregation already existed, in which case the only thing the system does is anchor that reality."
What the stratification system definitely does not do is drastically reduce inequality, even though that was one of the motives to start with the social ranking in the first place. The Gini inequality index for Colombia dropped from 0.58 in 1980 to 0.57 in 2002 and 0.52 in 2016, a decrease that is still not as sharp as in the rest of Latin America. On the contrary, together with Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, Colombia was among the countries with the smallest inequality decrease in the period 2002-2008.
Despite the disadvantages, it will be very difficult to abolish the stratification system in Colombia. Sepúlveda explains: "The system is not only firmly embedded in the mentality of Colombians, there is also no political will to change anything. It would impact the way many institutions function."
Colombia is not the only country with these ideas. Recently, the Association of Flemish Cities and Municipalities (Vereniging van Vlaamse Steden en Gemeenten, VVSG) also came up with the idea of lowering taxes in particular districts to make them more attractive to live in. Although the objective differs from that of Bogota’s project, the Colombian results show that thorough research needs to be conducted before such a proposal can be implemented.