Mexican statistics institute accused of manipulating poverty data

A crumbling home in the city of Pachuca, Mexico. (Credit: Kevin Dooley/ www.travelbusy.com/kevin-dooley-photography/)

More than 60 organizations that make up the Citizen Action Against Poverty have accused the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) of manipulating their methodology of measuring household income, making it appear as if Mexicans have a much higher than usual income.

According to the state-run statistics service, which published its Module of Socioeconomic Conditions on Friday, Mexico’s impoverished populations were up to 33.6 percent richer in 2015 than in the previous year.

INEGI defended the changes, saying it “improved” the way it measures income because it suspected people were underreporting what they earn. The agency said it required its interviewers to dig deeper with people who reported no income, the Associated Press reported, to turn up even the most meager sources of income like handouts, odd jobs or help from relatives. Previously unregistered amounts were then counted in the survey, which was conducted in late 2015.

But as the institute acknowledges, the changes make it impossible to compare poverty rates from even last year’s numbers, which indicated 46.2 percent of Mexicans lived in poverty and 9.5 percent couldn’t meet basic daily needs.

Moreover, the fact that no one else knew of the changes – including the government poverty agency CONEVAL, which uses INEGI’s data to measure poverty levels and evaluate social programs has raised questions about the possible political use of the statistics.

“It will increase suspicion,” said Gonzalo Hernández Licona, executive secretary of CONEVAL. “The problem is that in a country with a history of suspicion around its leaders, those changes should be transparent, planned and timely.”

Various senators and political figures have also responded with demands that the federal government not use the data for political use.

The president of the National Action Party (PAN), Ricardo Anaya Cortés, said it is “very serious” that the federal government is trying to “make up” the figures for measuring poverty for political purposes.

“It would be absolutely unacceptable for the government to pretend to compare the new estimates of poverty [with past estimates], as it will clearly be lower due to the new measurement method implemented by the INEGI. We will not accept that they try to fool us,” he said.

The INEGI has not yet made a public response to the widespread criticism. But in an interview with the New York Times, Rolando Ocampo, vice president of the INEGI’s board of directors, said the changes weren’t in any way meant to imply poverty rates had improved. He explained that “there was a communication problem,” because other agencies and civic groups weren’t made fully aware of the changes.

Measuring poverty has proved controversial in Mexico. The country used to measure poverty based on income, but altered its methodology in 2008 to take a “multidimensional” measure based on six social necessities. Although the recent change was a complete surprise to many, the INEGI argues that underreporting of income is a problem more pronounced in Mexico than anywhere else in Latin America.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com