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Measuring Up: A History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1850-1950


Measuring Up traces the high levels of poverty and inequality that Mexico faced in the mid-twentieth century. Using newly developed multidisciplinary techniques, the book provides a perspective on living standards in Mexico prior to the first measurement of income distribution in 1957. By offering an account of material living conditions and their repercussions on biological standards of living between 1850 and 1950, it sheds new light on the life of the marginalized during ...
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Measuring Up: A History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1850-1950

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Measuring Up traces the high levels of poverty and inequality that Mexico faced in the mid-twentieth century. Using newly developed multidisciplinary techniques, the book provides a perspective on living standards in Mexico prior to the first measurement of income distribution in 1957. By offering an account of material living conditions and their repercussions on biological standards of living between 1850 and 1950, it sheds new light on the life of the marginalized during this period.

Measuring Up shows that new methodologies allow us to examine the history of individuals who were not integrated into the formal economy. Using anthropometric history techniques, the book assesses how a large portion of the population was affected by piecemeal policies and flaws in the process of economic modernization and growth. It contributes to our understanding of the origins of poverty and inequality, and conveys a much-needed, long-term perspective on the living conditions of the Mexican working classes.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"[Measuring Up] builds confidently on innovative work on stature and living standards in Europe and the United States. I hope that she and others continue to pursue this rich vein in Latin America, pushing the analysis back into the colonial era and forward through the twentieth century. Historians interested in social, cultural, and political topics should find that this book provides a crucial baseline for situating their work."—Edward Beatty, The Americas

"This book constitutes pioneering scholarship in Mexican history. It is potentially one of the more important works published in the field in the last generation because of its anthropometric approach to the usually ideologized issue of Mexico's secular economic development. This is a book based on facts and measurable inferences, not deductions from a premise. It will be valuable to a wide group of scholars—wider than Latin American history alone."—Richard Salvucci, Trinity University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804773164
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 9/5/2012
  • Series: Social Science History
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Moramay López-Alonso is Assistant Professor of History at Rice University.
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A History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1850–1950


Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7316-4

Chapter One

The Ideas Behind the Making of Welfare Institutions

The Catholic Church of the nineteenth century viewed poverty as inherent to human society and hence ineradicable. The biblical foundation of these assertions, rooted in the readings of Matthew 26:8—11, among other texts, gave the basis for accepting poverty in the Western world as well as for proclaiming the Catholic Church the mother of the poor and hence the institution responsible for assisting them. In general terms, this is how in the history of the Western world the terms Catholic Church, poverty, and charity became closely intertwined. In this chapter I will discuss the ideas that shaped concepts and policies on welfare, poverty, and charity as they evolved in the Western world and as they were adopted in Mexico.

Prior to the mid-nineteenth century it was, in fact, basically impossible to eliminate poverty from societies. This was because all societies during the preindustrial era—and even during the first phases of the Industrial Revolution—were still economies whose growth was bounded by physical restrictions inherent to traditional modes of production, especially in agriculture. Agriculture required that the greatest portion of laboring people made use of extant production techniques; the constant threat of potentially adverse climatic conditions such as droughts or frosts made societies vulnerable to crop failures, and these failures forced people into poverty.

Three classical economists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries described and explained these limitations: Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus. Although Smith and Ricardo had a great optimism about the benefits of industrialization, they recognized the limits imposed on economic growth by agricultural production. In his Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith declares his enthusiasm for the effectiveness of the division of labor. In his famous parable of the production of nails, he explains the gains to be made from this innovation in the organization of production. Still, he recognizes that the division of labor as introduced in industrial production could not be applied in agriculture. In the early nineteenth century, David Ricardo, in his On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, presents the different angles of diminishing marginal returns (DMRs), which offers an additional explanation of the limits of agriculture production to the one posed by Smith. Ricardo assumes a fixed method of agricultural production, such that the condition of the land becomes the key variable in value. Ricardo explains that DMRs were among the causes that inhibited the further growth of economies at the time, and that DMRs also held true not only for food production, but for all sectors of the economy. He reasons that nearly all branches of production were based mainly on animal and vegetable raw materials that were a part of agriculture. Thomas Malthus's argument of human demographic behavior (ca. 1803) was another compelling explanation, contending that traditional societies would always have poor people. In times of plenty, better nutrition would decrease mortality and, lustful as human beings were, they would raise fertility rates and eventually the additional labor supply would force wages back to the minimum subsistence level.

Decades later, the ideas of these three classical economists were put into question by technological innovations in agricultural production that would free economies from such barriers. The introduction of these innovations increased the production of agricultural goods while it required fewer people working in the fields. Fewer people working in the fields meant more people available to work in other sectors of the economy, such as the nascent industries. These changes resulted in a steady rise in real incomes for the economy in general. More wealth was created. Changes in the productivity of the economy resulted from innovations in agricultural technology and industrialization as much as from research and innovations in the fields of physics, chemistry, and biology that made it possible to develop technologies that increased the supply of energy available for production. In addition, despite the growing prosperity in the economy, fertility tended to decline in most Western societies. Alas, Malthus did not live long enough to see that the evolution of populations in the industrializing world did not match his argument on human demographic behavior.

Karl Marx was one of the contemporary observers of the mid-nineteenth century who realized that the new modes of production created more wealth, and he understood the depth of transformation that the rise of capitalism would bring to Western economies. Marx feared that, in the new capitalist economy, workers would not receive a fair remuneration for their labor and the poor would not have any part in the distribution of the new wealth created. He noted that the scale of economic growth taking place in the mid-nineteenth century was such that enough wealth was being created to eliminate poverty. From that time on, if poverty existed, it was no longer the fault of weather calamities producing poor harvests or lack of land to put to work, but rather a lack of political will to provide the lower strata of the population with sufficient remuneration from labor to acquire adequate food, fuel, housing, and clothing. Malthus, in other words, had been refuted by the capitalist mode of production. Thus, Marx insisted, if poverty existed in an industrialized society, it was because of the unequal distribution of wealth. From this point onward, industrializing economies had the potential to create sufficient resources from growth, and, for the first time in the history of humankind, the abolition of poverty was a possibility. Henceforth, Western societies had to modify their ideas on poverty. New modes of production also required a modification of labor relations as a rising number of people began to depend solely on their wages to earn their living.

It is important to define what we understand by the word poor as well as by the concept of poverty, both of which took on different meanings in the century this study examines. People could be poor in a definitive way, such as the elderly who had no one to care for them, those with incurable diseases, those with a physical or mental disability, or those who were so malnourished that they did not have the energy to work and make a living. Others could be poor due to unfortunate circumstances that could be described as temporary, for instance, those who were out of work or lost their crops and thus were not able to feed themselves and their families. The poor could also be pregnant single mothers or widows who had no one to look after them, or orphan children. These poor people were also defined as the able-bodied. Some poor people were lifetime urban dwellers; others were rural dwellers who in times of harsh conditions in the countryside migrated to the cities in search of work. Some scholars have drawn a distinction between those who are poor and those who are marginalized. The argument for this distinction is that poor people have an income, albeit insufficient to make a living; they are inserted in the economy. The marginalized are individuals alienated from the economy. Just as there were different reasons why someone could fall into poverty, it is reasonable to assert that each type of poverty requires different kinds of assistance. The Catholic Church decided its duty was to help both the poor and the marginalized according to the needs of each group. For the poor it was help to endure their condition (illness, old age), normally by giving them room and board. To the marginalized, it was helping them acquire skills that would integrate them into society as productive people. The definitions just described can be generalized to any preindustrial society or any society in the process of industrialization. What cannot be generalized is the way each society reacted to this phenomenon.

When trying to determine who is poor, we should also keep in mind that although some of the basic definitions of poverty are universal, poverty is very much shaped by cultural values and norms in each society and that these evolve over time. The same holds true about the way people deal with poverty at the individual, family, and community levels and as a society at large. This point is particularly important to stress in this study given that Mexico as a country underwent significant changes between 1850 and 1950 while retaining many of its cultural values and traditions. Changes were mainly social, political, technological, scientific, and demographic; all have to be taken into account when assessing welfare provision policies. In the case of Mexico, most cultural values, however, remained the same or barely changed, and this had an impact on the way people adapted to the many social, political, and economic transformations taking place.

In deciding who should receive help, experts on this topic in the Western world made the distinction between those who were poor and those who were marginalized, as part of what was understood as a "moral economy." The able-bodied were often considered vagrants because, although able to work, they were not employed; they were thus categorized as "nondeserving." Those who had some physical impediment, such as being crippled, elderly, or mentally ill, who begged for alms because they could not work, were categorized as "deserving." Western societies of the Enlightenment era believed that it was not good for society to support (through almsgiving) vagrants and "professional beggars," as they were believed to disdain work and feign their disabilities because of their corrupt nature. The able-bodied poor were thus not eligible to receive charity, whereas the marginalized were. Moreover, the able-bodied were to be punished for their ill nature and forced to work. Men were conscripted; women were put to work as servants. Young orphans and street children were also eligible for charity, but fell into a different category of charity because they could still be taught to be good citizens, productive workers, and obedient servants, depending on the age at which they could be put to work. The advent of modern industrialized capitalist economies created new and different kinds of social needs. Labor market, public health, and plain poverty issues required that each be treated separately. During the second half of the nineteenth century industrializing states underwent an institutional transformation that led to the emergence of the modern welfare state. The notion of deserving and nondeserving poor in the social policies narrative prevails to this day.

All throughout the period 1850—1950, Mexican extended families were, for the most part, the social networks that supported the needy. It was not until the 1940s that a European-style welfare system developed. The prevalence and preponderance of the extended family's assistance contrasts with countries such as England where, as early as the sixteenth century, people expected the government to care for the elderly and the sick. In Mexico, extended families traditionally have taken care, in one way or another, of members who were in need. Family ties encompassed relatives of the second and third degree as well as ties created through a religious commitment known as compadrazgo (fictive kin). This way godchildren and compadres became members of the extended family. The heads of the household frequently had daughters who were single mothers; their illegitimate offspring were also included in the household as members of the extended family. The fact is that in Mexico the social fabric was woven in such way that people were more likely to have someone who would care for them in the world than in other societies with state-run social institutions.

The family economy in Mexico was and still is a strategy of survival for extended families. How the family economy is organized in precise terms is unique to each family in each time period. A number of factors determine the different arrangements of family economies, namely, the number of members in the household, the gender, the ages, whether they were rural or urban, the level of schooling of the members, their material living conditions, and the desired level of consumption. Over time the number and variety of consumption goods desired by members of a household significantly changed.

Communities also play a relevant role in the provision of welfare for individuals. They can create networks of help that facilitate assistance to individuals or families that fall into poverty or become destitute due to unfortunate circumstances such as death or illness of one of the family members, especially when this member is one of the household breadwinners. Just as with the families, the nature and strength of the arrangements created are unique to each community. A number of factors determine these arrangements, namely, the wealth of the community members, the level of participation of members in the arrangements created, and the level of congeniality in a community, to name a few.

Different priorities bring communities together in different cultures and times. In English communities members would contribute to a fund to help those in need in semirural communities; at the end of the nineteenth century, Americans would contribute to create a hospital or a clinic in growing cities. In Mexico communities would be more likely to help pay for the proper burial of a member of the community or to embellish the town church for the feast of the patron saint rather than create a fund to help community members who fell ill or to ensure against a harvest failure. The drawing of comparisons among Mexico, England, and the United States is not an attempt to say that one case is better than another, but rather highlights the relevance of cultural values in defining the patterns of behavior and decision making. Moreover, we should keep in mind the timelines of each nation: Mexico remained an economy bounded by traditional modes of production for much longer than England or North America.

Institutions also play a role in the provision of welfare. Welfare institutions were administered by the Church, the state, or private individuals. The efficiency with which welfare institutions operate depends on the same variables with which other institutions work. One must address how adequately designed the rules of operation are for the needs of the community, whether their rules are enforceable, or if community members are willing to participate. Moreover, it is important to take into account whether there is state intervention or not and, if there is, whether this is positive or not. The latter is relevant to understanding the scale of action of the institution.

An example of efficient welfare institutional operation is England at the time of the enactment of the Elizabethan Poor Law in 1598 and 1601. Given the increase in the number of poor and in an effort to centralize political power in England and Wales, Elizabeth I established a mandatory publically financed system of poor relief. The parish was assigned to be the local unit of poor law administration and taxation. This basic administrative framework was efficient enough to persist largely unchanged for nearly two centuries. Social, political, and economic conditions at the time contributed to making this administrative framework functional. Similar initiatives took shape in Mexico, in which the Catholic Church played a leading role in providing assistance to the needy with the government's approval. They were not, however, as effective as the English system.

In Mexico, institutions evolved at a different pace and rhythm. Nineteenth-century Mexican institutions were defined by the prevailing social, political, and economic circumstances of the new nation. Financial distress, political instability, and social disparities colored the picture. As previously mentioned, there were profound institutional transformations between 1850 and 1950. In deciding how to implement these changes, Mexican policy makers and intellectuals sought models already developed in Europe, which they hoped to adapt to Mexican circumstances. The following discussion is divided into three periods: liberalism (1850 — 1876), Porfiriato (1876—1910), and postrevolution (1911—1950).


Excerpted from MEASURING UP by MORAMAY LÔPEZ-ALONSO Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xiii

List of Acronyms xvii

Introduction 1

Section 1 Institutions and Living Standards 15

Chapter 1 The Ideas Behind the Making of Welfare Institutions 19

Chapter 2 Welfare as Charity 31

Chapter 3 Welfare as Public Policy 43

Section 2 Anthropometric Evidence 59

Chapter 1 The Measure of Well-Being and Growth: Why and How Do We Use Heights to Understand Living Standards? 61

Chapter 2 The Tall or Short of It: Tracking Heights and Living Standards 101

Section 3 The Synergies Between Health and Nutrition 131

Chapter 1 Health and Nutrition: The History 137

Chapter 2 Health and Nutrition: The, Data Analysis 179

Overview and Final Conclusions 207

Appendix 217

Notes 221

Bibliography 253

Index 267

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