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Small change, huge impact: How remittances assist development in impoverished regions of the world

 

remittancesIn 2016, Mexicans living abroad sent home $27 billion in remittances home to Mexico, the largest remittance influx that Mexico has ever received. Remittance inflows now surpass crude oil and tourism as major sources of income for Mexico, and much of these inflows go to Mexico’s most rural, impoverished areas, where they are a lifeline. Most of the remittances sent to Mexico came from the United States due to a strong U.S. labor market, a weakening Mexican peso, and fears that the Trump administration may tax remittances in order to pay for a border wall.

Often, due to poor economic prospects and a lack of opportunity at home, migrants will seek work abroad and send back a portion of their earnings to help friends and family. These funds that are sent back are called remittances. Between 1960 and 2010, the number of migrants increased from 90 million to 215 million worldwide, and migration to western Europe and the United States accounts for around two thirds of this growth. In 2015, more than $431 billion in remittances were sent to developing countries, with each remittance (also referred to as a transaction) averaging around $200. In many developing countries, remittances constitute a huge source of cash inflow; in 2013, remittance inflows globally were three times larger than inflows from official foreign aid, and remittances regularly exceed foreign direct investment in developing countries. When considering a nation’s development, it is common for policymakers and others to only consider foreign aid and largely disregard remittances as a source for development funds. It is important to remember, however, that the remittances that migrants send home have powerful impacts on encouraging development and reducing poverty in the developing world.

In developing regions around the world, remittances are a lifeline, bringing much needed funds to people who are barely scraping by. India was the biggest destination for remittances in 2015, followed by China, the Philippines, and then Mexico. Some countries could not function without substantial funds from abroad–remittances make up 29 percent of Nepal’s GDP, and in Tajikistan, that number is 42 percent. For countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, such as Tajikistan, remittances are especially vital.

In impoverished parts of Mexico, remittances constitute around 19.5 percent of income, which is an even higher percentage than the contributions to income from government welfare programs. The remittances that families receive are put to use covering basic needs first, with the rest going towards investments and paying back debts, allowing those who receive enough in remittances to begin to focus on getting out of poverty. A report published by the Inter-American Development Bank found that in rural Mexico, 74 percent of remittance monies are used to cover basic costs of living, with 16 percent used to pay debts and 5 percent used towards investing in the home. Furthermore, remittances have a tendency to act like insurance for recipients. Remittances tend to be  countercyclical–during an economic downturn or after a natural disaster in migrants’ home countries, remittance flows actually increase, allowing some of the poorest members of the global population to better weather financial crises.

In many cases, recipients of remittances use those funds to enroll their children in school, which allows them to achieve higher levels of education that can lead to higher-paying jobs. Data from the World Bank show that in many countries in Latin America, children in families that receive remittances are more likely to stay in school and have higher educational attainment. Thus, remittances provide a means for families to invest in the skills of their children, giving them tools that can help them break the cycle of poverty in later life.

There is also evidence that increases in remittance flows received by people in Mexico correspond directly to a decrease in crime. A study by the Inter-American Development Bank found that for every percentage point increase in remittances, street robberies in Mexico declined by 0.19 percent and homicides decreased by 0.4 percent. This decline can be attributed to several factors. First, as mentioned above, remittance flows give families the opportunity to send their children to school, reducing the incentive for these children to commit crimes. Not only does being in school prevent children from engaging in criminal activity, but the extra years of education allow students to eventually get higher-paying jobs that allow them to make ends meet without having to resort to crime. Second, remittances increase income and therefore decrease the benefits derived from committing crimes, and studies conducted in Brazil and in Colombia confirm this. Finally, 5 percent of remittance funds in Mexico are used towards home expenses, which stimulates the construction sector leading to the creation of construction jobs. These jobs offer people, particularly those with little education, the chance to earn a living without having to turn to crime.

In January of 2017, Mexican immigrants in the United States sent $2 billion back to Mexico, up 6.3 percent from this time last year. While a weaker peso did play a role in this jump, much of the increase stems from fears about a potential tax on remittances being sent from America. It is true that large sums of money flow from the United States into Mexico each year. However, this money is put to good use in impoverished regions where it is needed most. It allows children to stay in school longer and makes them less likely to commit crimes. It enables families to make ends meet and lays the groundwork for recipients to lift themselves out of poverty. Given the important role that remittances play in assisting in the development of impoverished regions of Mexico, such a tax would significantly hurt the people who rely heavily on those remittances to make ends meet.

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