Social class in Colombia
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Since the sixteenth century, Colombian society has been highly stratified, with social classes generally linked to racial or wealth distinctions, and vertical mobility has been limited. The proportion of white ancestry has been an important measure of status for the mixed groups since the colonial era. In the nineteenth century, Colombia's rugged terrain and inadequate transportation system reinforced social and geographic distance, keeping the numerically superior but disunited masses fragmented and powerless. The nascent middle class lacked a collective consciousness, preferring to identify individually with the upper class. Except in certain instances of urban artisans and some Amerindian communities, the elite was the only social group with sufficient cohesion to articulate goals and make them known to the rest of the society. In the twentieth century, the society began to experience change, not so much in values or orientation as in broadening of the economic bases and an expansion of the social classes. Improvements in transportation, communications, and education—coupled with industrialization and rapid urban growth—opened Colombian society somewhat by expanding economic opportunities. These advances, although mixed, have continued during the first decade of the present century.
The many terms for color still being used reflect the persistence of this colonial pattern and a continuing desire among Colombians to classify each other according to color and social group. These terms also cut across class lines so that persons at one level define themselves as being racially similar to those at other levels. The confusion over classification has affected most Colombians because most of them do not define themselves as being white, black, or Amerindian, which are distinct and mutually exclusive groups, but as belonging to one of the mixed categories. In addition to racial and wealth factors, Colombia's classes are distinguished by education, family background, lifestyle, occupation, power, and geographic residence.
Within every class, there are numerous subtle gradations in status. Colombians tend to be extremely status-conscious, and class identity is an important aspect of social life because it regulates the interaction of groups and individuals. Social-class boundaries are far more flexible in the city than in the countryside, but consciousness of status and class distinctions continues to permeate social life throughout Colombia.
The upper class is very successful in maintaining exclusivity and controlling change through a system of informal decision-making groups called roscas—the name of a twisted pastry. Such groups exist at different levels and across different spheres and are linked hierarchically by personal relationships. Their composition varies according to level—municipal, departmental, or national—but each group tries to include at least one powerful person from every sphere. A rosca is a vitally important system in both the social and the political context because it is at this level of interaction that most political decisions are made and careers determined. Only as a member of such a group can an individual be considered a member of the upper-middle or upper class. Indeed, the listed names of past presidents reflect how power has remained the purview of a small number of elite families instead of a meritocracy.
Colombia has an abundance of families that belonged to the middle-class sector of society and are struggling between the need to survive and the desire to give their children a good education. The lower-middle class, constituting the bulk of the middle class, comes primarily from upwardly mobile members of the lower class. A large number are clerks or small shopkeepers. Many have only a precarious hold on middle-class status and tend to be less concerned with imitating upper-class culture and behavior than with making enough money to sustain a middle-class lifestyle. Such families tend to be just as concerned as those at higher social levels with giving their children an education. Many hope to send at least one of their children through a university, regardless of the financial burden.
Official strata divisions
The official strata division provides another look at social classes. A 1994 law provides "an instrument that allows a municipality or district to classify its population in distinct groups or strata with similar social and economic characteristics". The law was framed this way to establish cross-class subsidies that would help those in the lower strata pay for utilities. Housing characteristics, such as a garage, a front yard, and quality of the neighborhood, are the main criteria used. Depending on the diversity and quality of housing, there could be six strata: level one is lower-low, two is low, three is upper-low, four is medium, five is medium-high, and six is high. Most cities have all six, but there are towns that have only three. This national classification identifies groups with similar socioeconomic characteristics. Although strata are not a direct reflection of social class, they provide useful information beyond income measures.
The great majority of the population (89 percent) lives in strata one, two, and three, and on that basis, even if not by other criteria, is considered poor. Strata four, five, and six house only 6.5 percent, 1.9 percent, and 1.5 percent of the population, respectively. In other words, only about 10 percent of the population lives in dwellings that are well built and located in well-developed neighborhoods with access to good utility services.
The overlap between these official strata and social class is not perfect. It is possible to find very high-income people living in stratum three and some stratum-six residents who have strong affinity with the lower classes. There are several reasons for these coexisting disparities, the main one being perhaps the strong upward mobility allowed by the illegal-drug industry wealth that did not necessarily lead to a change in self-perception. The living expenses of this group of drug traffickers are very high, but they retain some of the cultural identity, education, and self-perceptions of the lower classes.