Posted by Trevor Snapp

One decade ago, a third of Mexicans’ earnings were poverty line. Most of the poor lived in rural villages surviving on seasonal work and small crops of corn and beans. They received little help from the state, and had few opportunities to change their lot. Hardships pushed many to make the dangerous trip north to the US. Corruption, illiteracy and a lack of rural infrastructure threatened to keep these people poor forever.

But Mexico is a country where anything is possible, from horrific violence to beatific acts of generosity. On Monday the apocalypse looms large, by Wednesday revolution is imminent, and Friday is fiesta.

In this context the world's most spectacularly successful anti-poverty program was born. Oportunidades, originally named PROGRESA, was launched in 1996 as a quiet experiment by then Finance Ministry undersecretary Santiago Levy in the state of Compeche. The program’s premise is simple: pay poor mothers to keep their children in school and take their families to the health clinic.

Its results were astounding. In a slowly growing economy poverty dropped by 17%, and school attendance shot up 85%. Money went directly from the federal government to the families, thus skirting corrupt local officials. Today 25% of the country’s population is enrolled in the $3.8 billion program. It is still too soon to say how the program has affected a generation of poor students. In the next few months results of a decade-long survey on the program’s effects will be finished.

Yet to countries struggling to escape the same cycle of poverty that trapped generations of Mexicans, Oportunidades offers an example. The program is being adapted throughout the world. New York City has launched a similar program Opportunity NYC. Other countries that have instituted similar conditional cash transfer programs include Nicaragua, Brazil, Honduras, Jamaica, Chile, Malawi and Zambia. And organizations like the World Bank are promoting the project around the world. The idea’s expansion is as exciting as the success of the program itself.

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