PROFOUND CHANGES OCCURRED IN Mexican society during the second half of the twentieth century. A sharp decline in mortality levels, coupled with fertility rates that remained relatively high until the mid-1970s, produced a massive population increase. Indeed, the 1990 census total of approximately 81 million Mexicans was more than triple the figure recorded forty years earlier. Mexico's stagnant agricultural sector could not absorb the millions of additional workers, triggering a steady migration to the cities. As a result, Mexico shifted from a predominantly rural to a heavily urban society. Because of the lack of available housing, migrants generally clustered on the periphery of Mexico City and other major urban centers. The local infrastructure often could not keep pace with such growth, resulting in serious environmental concerns.
Despite the massive problems caused by the rapid population shift, successive Mexican governments could point to notable accomplishments in improving the quality of life of their citizens. In the years after World War II, the percentage of deaths caused by infectious, parasitic, and respiratory illnesses fell dramatically. Both the number and percentage of Mexicans with access to basic services such as running water and electricity grew substantially. Literacy and educational levels continued to climb.
The benefits of modernization were not equally distributed, however. Residents of southern Mexico consistently trailed the rest of the country in "quality-of-life" indicators. Urban workers in the informal sector of the economy did not have access to the same level of health care as their counterparts in the formal sector and did not qualify for retirement or pension payments. Income distribution had become increasingly skewed in favor of the wealthiest sectors of society. Mexican policy makers thus faced the difficult challenge of ensuring economic growth while also confronting the persistence of poverty.
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