Society - the Urban Poor
The limited availability of adequately paid and steady employment defined life for most urban Dominicans. Unemployment in the 1980s ranged between 20 and 25 percent of the economically active population. In addition, another 25 percent of the work force was considered underemployed. In Santo Domingo and Santiago, the two largest cities, roughly 48 percent of the selfemployed , more than half of those paid piece rates, and 85 percent of temporary workers were underemployed. A late 1970s survey of five working-class neighborhoods in Santo Domingo found that 60 percent of household heads had no regular employment. Under such conditions, those workers having regular employment constituted a relatively privileged segment of the urban populace.
Rural-urban migration made the situation of the urban poor even more desperate; however, the chances of earning a living were slightly better in cities than in rural areas, although the advantages of an urban job had to be weighed against the higher cost of foodstuffs. Landless, or nearly landless, agricultural laborers might find it difficult to work even a garden plot, but the rural family could generally get by on its own food production. For the urban poor, however, the struggle to eat was relentless.
Under conditions of chronically high unemployment, workers enjoyed little power or leverage. Protective labor laws were typically limited in their coverage to workers in private companies with more than ten employees. Organized labor made significant gains in the early 1960s, but by the late 1980s only a scant 12 to 15 percent of the labor force was unionized. The legal code prohibited nearly half of all workers (public employees and utility workers) from strikes and job actions.
Roughly one-quarter of urban households surveyed in the mid1970s were headed by women. Even in families with a male breadwinner, a woman was frequently the more consistent income earner among poorer city dwellers. Women's economic activities were diverse--if poorly remunerated. They took in washing and ironing, and they did domestic work. The more prosperous sewed. Some bought cheap or used items and raffled them off. A few who could muster the necessary capital ran stalls selling groceries, cigarettes, and candy, but their trade was minimal. In smaller towns, women also performed a variety of agricultural processing tasks: grinding coffee, husking garlic, winnowing beans, and washing pig intestines.
Like more well-to-do city families, the poor tried, wherever possible, to maintain ties with their kin in the countryside. Aid and assistance flowed both ways. Farmers with relatives in the city stayed with them on trips to town and repaid this hospitality with foodstuffs from their fields. New rural-urban migrants were assisted by kin who had already made the transition. The poor were handicapped in these exchanges because they typically had fewer kin in a position to help. Nonetheless, the obligation to help was deeply felt. Women who migrated to cities returned to their families in the countryside as economic conditions and family needs dictated.
The small urban neighborhood functioned as the center of social life. Most sharing, mutual aid, and cooperative activity took place within the confines of a narrow circle of neighbors and kin. Most Dominicans shared a general belief that neighbors should assist each other in times of need.
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