Structural Origins of Today’s Youth Poverty and Inequality in Youth Transitions: the Emblematic Case of Uruguay

Denisse Gelber
Phd. Candidate in Sociology (University of Texas at Austin, Population Research Center)



Cecilia Rossel
Phd in Political Sciences (Instituto Ortega y Gasset-Universidad Complutense). Independent Researcher and consultant, CEPAL.


  Available for blinds

[soundcloud url=”″ ]


Abstract: The article analyzes the current situation of youth in Uruguay, showing the structural factors that are related to poverty and inequality in two areas: education and work. The first argument is that although poverty among youths has recently declined, inequality appears to be growing. The second argument is that this situation results from a combination of three structural processes that have been present in the country for many years: age inequality and bias, socioeconomic inequality and gender inequality. The article analyzes data from household and national youth surveys to prove how the distances between richer and poorer youths are becoming increasingly high. The analysis also points out the weak position of Uruguay relative to other Latin American countries, in particular, regarding poverty and inequalities among the youngest. The article confirms what many other studies have concluded: present inequalities among youths are rooted in historical long-term processes that cannot be modified in the short or medium term. It also demonstrates that the present debate on unequal youth trajectories and the negative configurations of the transitions to adulthood among the poorest, cannot be separated from a debate regarding Uruguay’s distribution of welfare benefits, social transfers and social expenditure among different age groups.

Key Words: Youth, Poverty, Inequality, Education, Work, Uruguay, Structural factors, Intergenerational inequality.


Orígenes estructurales de la pobreza juvenil y la desigualdad en la transición a la adultez: el emblemático caso de Uruguay

Resumen: El artículo analiza la actual situación de la juventud en Uruguay, mostrando los factores estructurales relacionados con la pobreza y desigualdad en dos áreas: educación y empleo. El primer argumento es que si bien la pobreza entre los jóvenes ha disminuido recientemente, la desigualdad estaría aumentando. El segundo argumento es que esta situación es el resultado de una combinación de tres procesos estructurales que han estado presentes en el país desde hace varios años: la inequidad y sesgo de edad, la desigualdad socioeconómica y de género. El artículo analiza los datos de encuestas de hogares y encuestas juveniles, representativas a nivel nacional, para demostrar cómo las distancias entre los jóvenes más ricos y los más pobres son cada vez mayores. El análisis también señala la débil posición de Uruguay en relación a otros países de América Latina, en particular, en relación con la pobreza y las desigualdades entre los más jóvenes. El artículo confirma lo que  otros estudios han concluido: las desigualdades actuales entre los jóvenes tienen sus raíces históricas en procesos de largo plazo que no pueden ser modificados en el corto o mediano plazo. También demuestra que el debate actual sobre la desigualdad en las trayectorias juveniles y las configuraciones negativas de la transición a adultez entre los más pobres, no se puede separar de un debate en Uruguay sobre la distribución de las prestaciones sociales, las transferencias sociales y el gasto social entre los diferentes grupos de edad.

Palabras clave: Juventud, Pobreza, Inequidad, Educación, Trabajo, Uruguay, Factores Estructurales, Inequidad Intergeneracional.


The transition to adulthood is composed of four events: school dropout, integration to the workforce, household emancipation and formation of a new family (Casal, Garcia, Merino, & Quesada, 2006; Ciganda, 2008; C. Filgueira, 1998). Present and future wellbeing of young people is largely affected by the timing and order of each of these events. Therefore, a better grasp of the transition to adulthood is crucial to understand the reproduction of social exclusion in early stages (Filardo, 2010; C. Filgueira, Filgueira, & Fuentes, 2001; Saraví, 2009).

This study is focused on the case of Uruguay, mainly known in the region by its egalitarian and high human development indexes, but less known by the disadvantaged situation of youth in terms of education and employment (ANEP, 2005, 2010; Diez de Medina, 2001; ECLAC, 2001, 2010; ECLAC-OIJ, 2004). In order to shed light on the precarious situation of youth in Uruguay, we argue that Uruguayan youth’s decisions on their transition to adulthood are strongly determined by structural factors such as intergenerational and gender inequality. In consequence, the uncomfortable place of the country in the region cannot be modified in the short or medium term.

In the first section, we present a literature review of three structural factors that affect youth’s transitions in Uruguay: age bias in well-being distribution or intergenerational inequality, gender inequality and socio-economic inequality. We argue that the analysis of youth transitions to adulthood in Uruguay should consider these aspects under the scope of the country’s distribution of well-being and tolerance to the disadvantaged situation of the youngest generations.

In the second section, we provide a comparative analysis of several dimensions in which inequalities in youth transitions to adulthood are visible. The data illustrates the paradox of a country with a relative high development in the region and, at the same time, with the highest distances in different dimensions between poorer and richer or less educated/more educated young people.

In the third section, we explore the evolution of some of these distances in the last two decades, with a special focus on gender inequality.  We use data from household and youth surveys carried out in the early nineties and the late 2000s.

In the final section we summarize the main findings and conclusions. We also discuss the relevance of considering the structural roots of inequality in youth transitions, suggesting an agenda for policy recommendations.

Structural chains in youth poverty and inequality: intergenerational, socioeconomic and gender inequality roots

In the late nineties, several studies focused on identifying the main features of poverty in Latin America. The overrepresentation of children and youth among the poor, revealed the existence of an age bias in the distribution of wellbeing in the region. In the 2000s, ECLAC (ECLAC, 2000) evidenced that the economic achievements reached by the region in the first half of the 90s were translated, for the first time, in an important reduction of the proportion of the population living under the poverty line. However, there were clear differences by age. The general poverty reduction was much higher among older people and in households with no youths or children. The report also accounted for an incipient rise of the poverty rate, due to the economic crisis the region was facing, which was mostly affecting the youngest generations. At the beginning of the 2000s, the Latin American country with the largest concentration of children and teenagers among the poor was Uruguay. Today, more than ten years later, Uruguay maintains its undesired position. The contribution of children and teenagers to the indigent and highly vulnerable to indigence population is 2.1 higher than their contribution to the total population (see Graph 1). At the same time, the gap between child poverty and poverty among the elderly has widened between 1990 and 2010. While two decades ago there were 4 poor children for every poor elder (aged over 65), in 2000 this number was above 9 and in 2010 was over 12. Uruguay occupies the worst regional place – far from its neighbors- in age inequality (see Graph 2). The data presented below, clearly reflects what some authors have defined as “poverty infatilization” (Kaztman & Filgueira, 2001), demonstrating the relevance of studying age biases not only in comparative terms but also within time, in order to account for its systematic growth.

    Based on the evidence, Uruguay faces a paradoxical situation. Even though it is part of a selected group of countries with the lowest poverty rate and income concentration in Latin America (e.g. Gini: 0.44 in 2010), it presents the largest age inequality in the region. Several factors are behind this. The first explanation is related to demographic variables. In the last decades, fertility rates have drastically reduced in Latin America. The number of children per women today is much lower than the number registered 30 or even 20 years ago. But this decrease has been extremely stratified, being much higher among educated and wealthier women and less noticeable among low-income women (ECLAC, 2010 & 2012). This process was closely connected to the increasing vulnerability of large families, result of a combination of more children living in households with fewer bread-winners caused by: (i) worse –and more intermittent- labor trajectories, (ii) younger heads of the household and (iii) lower participation of women in the labor market, due to difficulties to conciliate paid and unpaid work –basically care of children-. The third factor that completed the equation were profound changes in sexual behavior, divorce rates and family conformation patterns, which changed the shape of Latin American families. One of the main signs of this process is the growing numeric relevance of single-parent households (Arriagada, 1998; ECLAC, 2000 & 2010; Rico & Maldonado, 2011). Following this argument, there is no doubt that gender inequality –and the fact that only women with more income, education and other resources are able to move forward and narrow the gap with men- largely explains this structural configuration.

     But these factors are not enough to explain the strong age bias with which poverty has been evolving. The missing piece refers to the welfare models and, more specifically, to the extent and orientation of public social protection matrixes operating in each country. In some cases, like Uruguay, this matrix seems to be progressively “divorced” from the population’s structure of risks (F. Filgueira, Rodriguez, Rafaniello, Lijtenstein, & Alegre, 2005). This divorce suggests that the accumulation of risks during childhood limits wellbeing opportunities in the following stages of the life cycle. Based on this, educational development would be threatened and adolescent pregnancy would find space to deepen the already important gaps between more and less educated sectors. In the longer term, the exclusion of children and youths -second or even third generation living in poverty- would create a complex context. Not only will they represent an important part of the labor force in the near future, but they will also be the parents of an important proportion of the new generation of citizens.

Youth inequalities in a relatively developed country: different faces of the paradox

There are three dimensions from the transition to adulthood which serve to illustrate the inequality among youths in Uruguay. First, parenthood and residential emancipation is largely related to poverty in Uruguay. While there are 15 poor households with children -headed by youths- for every poor household without children, the regional average is less than 4 (Graph 3). This clearly reflects the disadvantaged situation of Uruguayan low-income young parents.

Regarding the exit from the educational system, Uruguayan youths are in a worse situation as well. While on average less than one third of young people complete Secondary education (12 years), the completion of this level is highly stratified. Less than two out of ten low income youths complete this level compared to eight out of ten from the wealthiest income quintile (Ministerio de Educación y Cultura, 2010). Compared to the region and less developed countries, Uruguayan low-income youths face an alarming situation (Graph 4).

Thirdly, the disadvantaged situation of youths in the labor market is common in the region. Half of the total unemployed in Latin America are young and youth unemployment tripled adults’ unemployment in 2007 (16% and 5% respectively) (International Labor Office, 2008). In the Southern Cone, Brazil and Paraguay, unemployment among teenagers (15-19) was four times larger than adults’ unemployment rate and 2.5 times larger than youths’ unemployment rate (Diez de Medina, 2001). Recent data evidences that, different from other indicators, Uruguayan youths present the same employment and participation rate than their Latin American peers, but unemployment is higher (Graph 5).

Due to the high educational inequality evidenced in the previous section, Uruguayan youths face different situations in the labor market according to their educational attainment, being the most educated more protected from unemployment. Young people with incomplete Secondary level (9 to 11 years of education) have 15% lower chances of being unemployed compared to those with lower educational attainment, while youths who completed Secondary level or more have ¼ lower chances of unemployment than the least educated (Bucheli, 2006). In Uruguay there are almost 2 low-educated unemployed youths for each high-educated unemployed young, ratio that doubles the regional one (Graph 6).

Finally, even though young people mostly work in low-paid, unstable jobs and without social security protection (ECLAC-OIJ, 2004; International Labor Office, 2010), educational attainment reduces youth’s chances of working in informal jobs. While, on average, there are 5 low-educated youths working in the informal sector for every high-educated, in Uruguay the ratio reaches almost 13. This implies that Uruguayan youths face a similar situation to their peers from some of the least developed countries in the region. Considering that low-income and low-educated youngsters mostly access informal and temporary jobs that do not provide any learning skills opportunity, their chances of improving their labor market opportunities are scarce, and therefore, their chances of social mobility (Schkolnik, 2006).

To sum up, the evidence reveals that low-income youths face a compelling situation in Uruguay, worse than that faced by their Latin American peers.  Their early residential emancipation and parenthood are largely related to poverty. Since their educational attainment is low, they have higher chances of unemployment, access to low-quality jobs and low salaries, with scarce possibilities of social mobility. Considering that these youths are second or third generation in poor households and that they cope with the burden of the country’s reproduction, the inter-generational reproduction of poverty and exclusion is here to stay.

Uruguay in the last decades: widening and crystallizing gender and socioeconomic gaps among youth

The disadvantaged situation of young people in Uruguay is not recent, neither the high inequality within this population. Several studies have identified different transitions to adulthood by gender and socio-economic level (Ciganda, 2008; C. Filgueira, 1998; C. Filgueira et al., 2001; Rossel, 2009). By gender, boys tend to overlap school dropout and entrance into the labor market, while girls tend to emancipate and form a new family earlier than boys (Filardo, 2011; Filardo, Cabrera, & Aguiar, 2009). By socio-economic level, low-income boys tend to drop out earlier from the educational system and enter into the labor market sooner than their wealthier peers even though they face higher unemployment rates, lower income and worse employment conditions (Amarante, 2011; Bucheli, 2006). Low-income girls tend to start a new family earlier and bear more children than their wealthier peers (Varela, Pollero, & Fostik, 2008). Different from boys, low-income girls do not tend to participate in the labor market (Cardozo & Iervolino, 2009). Wealthier youths, on the other hand, tend to delay their entrance into the labor market and parenthood due to their higher investment in education. Based on the literature, there are unequal patterns of transitions to adulthood by gender and socio-economic level. However, it is not clear whether inequality within women and men by socio-economic level has increased or not. In order to shed light on this aspect, we analyze data from the two national representative surveys of the Uruguayan young population (1990 and 2008) (note1) and several national household surveys.

We focus on gender because young women face more obstacles to study/ work than men, in part, due to their higher domestic burden and the unequal distribution of non-paid work by sex. This explains why, between 1990 and 2009, men present similar employment rates –regardless income- while women from low income households barely participate in the labor market, not only in comparison to their female peers but to men as well. Regarding unemployment, men’s gap by income level has been decreasing, while the gap between women has not. Informality has increased for both income levels, but the gap is larger among women and has increased much more than among men (see Graph 8).

In 1990 and 2008, youths were asked about their agreement with the phrase “It is preferable that women take care of their family and children instead of working”.  Considering that the support to this phrase is a proxy to youth’s perspective on gender equality, and that the traditional distribution of roles by gender clearly affects low-income young women, one would expect a general reduction of the agreement with this phrase. However, while highly educated men and women (Tertiary education and more) disagree more with this phrase within time, low-educated young (Primary education) are increasingly in favor. More than half of low-educated men do not support gender equality, compared to 40% of low-educated women and 15% of highly educated women. Based on this, the traditional distribution of roles by gender, which is partly reflected in the disadvantaged situation of low-educated women in the labor market, is increasingly supported by low-educated men and women and the opposite occurs among high-educated youths (Graph 9).

To sum up, comparable data for 1990 and 2009 on youth reveals that low-educated women are in more disadvantage than in the past while low-educated men are worse in the quality of jobs they access to but not in terms of unemployment. The unequal situation of low-educated youths has been growing within time, in particular for women. Considering that, as mentioned above, they bear a large part of the country’s reproduction, this situation requires immediate attention.

Concluding remarks

The article analyzed youth trajectories and identified the structural roots of the deep inequalities that are present in the main indicators of the transition to adulthood. It is clear that Uruguay distributes very unequally between its youngest population and its older one, between the richer and the poorer and also between men and women.

These inequalities seem to be reinforced when considering adolescence and youth. The evidence presented in this article shows that, in the regional context, Uruguay is worsening its position in terms of educational and labor inequality among youth. The diachronic data also bring negative news. And it is very important to acknowledge that this is occurring at a moment when the country is having historical achievements in reducing poverty and income concentration.

If the structural processes are not modified with structural policies, there are no real odds for the country to improve the situation of adolescents and young people, even when there could be strong efforts in developing specific policies for the youth. And if structural policies do not operate together -and assuming that these processes are interrelated-, governmental efforts could have less impact than what could be expected.

This situation leads us to argue that Uruguay needs to  readdress  a structural agenda for structural problems. This implies, in the first place, to keep investing in the first childhood, childhood and adolescence. The country is far from paying that debt and being able to start paying another one. Secondly, it should be kept in mind that putting youth first means, precisely, putting the earlier stages of the life cycle first too. Thirdly, gender inequality -and its reflection in labor market participation of poorer women- should be in the center of the debate about youth policy, urgently focusing on the development of a care system.

On the other hand, it is necessary to offer policies to contribute with the delay –or support- of youth’s transition to adulthood in low-income households. Part of this support, might be provided through labor market regulations, promoting the hiring of first-job seekers and low educated youth through tax waivers.

Finally, but not least, Uruguay requires a strong approach to reduce inequality in the educational system not only by redistributing resources between schools, but also between levels, giving more relevance to Secondary education where most dropout takes place. In this aspect, it is worth mentioning that Uruguayan’s government had several debates and policy initiatives but either there are no available evaluations of these policies or the policies have been truncated before time due to political disagreements.

All in all, the situation of youth in Uruguay is compelling and it has worsened within time. Evidence reveals there is no time to wait and adequate action should take place soon, in order to promote equality among new generations in the medium and long term.


  1. For information regarding the youth surveys used for the analysis, check: Filardo, Cabrera, & Aguiar, 2009; Rama & Filgueira, 1991.

Presentado parcialmente como comunicación al Seminario Internacional “2025: Juventudes con una mirada estratégica” realizado en Montevideo, Uruguay, los días 14 y 15 de Agosto de 2012.


Amarante, V. (2011). Empleo y juventud: diagnóstico y propuestas. Jóvenes en tránsito. Oportunidades y obstáculos en las trayectorias hacia la vida adulta. Uruguay: UNFPA-Rumbos.

ANEP. (2005). Panorama de la Educación en el Uruguay: Una década de Transformaciones. Montevideo, Uruguay.

ANEP. (2010). Uruguay en PISA 2009. Montevideo, Uruguay: ANEP.

Arriagada, Irma (1998), “Familias latinoamericanas: convergencias y divergencias de modelos y políticas”, Revista de la CEPAL, Nº 65 (LC/G.2033-P), Santiago de Chile, agosto.

Bucheli, M. (2006). Mercado de trabajo juvenil: situación y políticas ( No. 6). Estudios y perspectivas. Montevideo, Uruguay: CEPAL, Oficina de Montevideo.

Cardozo, S., & Iervolino, A. (2009). Adiós juventud: tendencias en las transiciones a la vida adulta en Uruguay. Revista de Ciencias Sociales (Departamento de Sociología), (Año XXII / No 25).

Casal, J., García, M., Merino, R., & Quesada, M. (2006). Aportaciones teóricas y metodológicas a la sociología de la juventud desde la perspectiva de la transición (Paper No. 79). Barcelona: Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona. Departamento de Sociología.

Ciganda, D. (2008). Jóvenes en transición hacia la vida adulta: el orden de los factores ¿no altera el producto? Demografía de una sociedad en transición. La población uruguaya a inicios del Siglo XXI (pp. 69–82). Montevideo, Uruguay: Fondo de Población de las Naciones Unidas.

Diez de Medina, R. (2001). El trabajo de los jóvenes en los países del Mercosur y Chile en el fin de siglo. Santiago de Chile: OIT.

ECLAC (2012a) Social Panorama of Latin America 2011. Santiago de Chile: Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

ECLAC (2012b) Eslabones de la desigualdad. Heterogeneidad estructural, empleo y protección social. Santiago de Chile: Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

ECLAC (2011) Social Panorama of Latin America 2010. Santiago de Chile: Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

ECLAC (2010) Social Panorama of Latin America 2009. Santiago de Chile: Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

ECLAC-OIJ. (2004). La Juventud en Iberoamérica. Tendencias y urgencias. Santiago de Chile: Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

ECLAC. (2001). Panorama social de América Latina y El Caribe 2001-2002. Santiago de Chile: Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

ECLAC (2000) Panorama social de América Latina 1999-2000. Santiago de Chile: Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Filardo, V. (2010). Transiciones a la adultez y  educación (Cuadernos del UNFPA No. 5). Serie Divulgación. Montevideo, Uruguay: Fondo de Población de las Naciones Unidas.

Filardo, V. (2011). Transiciones a la adultez y educación. Jóvenes en tránsito Oportunidades y obstáculos en las trayectorias hacia la vida adulta. Montevideo, Uruguay: UNFPA-Rumbos.

Filardo, V., Cabrera, M., & Aguiar, S. (2009). Segundo informe de la Encuesta Nacional de la Adolescencia y Juventud. Montevideo, Uruguay: MIDES-INJU.

Filgueira, C. (1998). Emancipación juvenil: Trayectorias y destinos. Montevideo, Uruguay: CEPAL, Oficina de Montevideo.

Filgueira, C., Filgueira, F., & Fuentes, A. (2001). Critical Choices at a Critical Age: Youth Emancipation Paths and School Attainment in Latin America (Working Paper No. 432). Washington, DC: Interamerican Deveolpment Bank.

Filgueira, F., Rodriguez, F., Rafaniello, C., Lijtenstein, S., & Alegre, P. (2005). Estructura de riesgo y arquitectura de protección social en el Uruguay actual: crónica de un divorcio anunciado. Prisma, 21, 7–42.

International Labor Office. (2008). Decent work and youth in Latin America (p. 108). Lima: ILO. Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean.

International Labor Office. (2010). Panorama Laboral 2010. América Latina y el Caribe. Lima: ILO-Oficina Regional para América Latina y el Caribe.

Kaztman, R. y Filgueira, F. (2001) Panorama de la infancia y la familia en Uruguay, ed. Programa de Investigación sobre Integración Pobreza y Exclusión Social (IPES). Montevideo: Universidad Católica del Uruguay.

Ministerio de Educación y Cultura. (2010). Anuario Estadístico de la Educación 2009. Montevideo, Uruguay.

Rama, G., & Filgueira, C. (1991). Los jóvenes en Uruguay: esos desconocidos. Montevideo: CEPAL, Oficina de Montevideo.

Rico, N. & Maldonado, C. (2011), “¿Qué muestra la evolución de los hogares sobre la evolución de las familias en América Latina?”. In: Rico, N. y Maldonado, C. (eds) Las familias latinoamericanas interrogadas. Hacia la articulación del diagnóstico, la legislación y las políticas. Serie Seminarios y Conferencias Nro 61. Santiago de Chile: CEPAL.

Rossel, C. (2009). Adolescencia y juventud en Uruguay: Elementos para un diagnóstico integrado. Viejas deudas, nuevos riesgos y oportunidades futuras ( No. 5). Cuadernos para el Debate. INJU.

Saraví, G. (2009). Transiciones vulnerables. Juventud, desigualdad y exclusión en México. México: Publicaciones de la Casa Chata.

Schkolnik, M. (2006). Trayectorias Laborales de los Jóvenes Chilenos. Juventud y mercado laboral: Brechas y barreras (pp. 83–126). Santiago de Chile: FLACSO-Chile, CEPAL.

Varela, C., Pollero, R., & Fostik, A. (2008). La fecundidad: evolución y comportamiento reproductivo. Demografía de una sociedad en transición. La población uruguaya a inicios del siglo XXI. Montevideo: P. de Poblacion/ U.Multidisciplinaria- Facultad de Ciencias Sociales/ UDELAR-UNFPA.

This article was published on October 17th: International Day for the Eradication of Poverty in Global Education Magazine


Comments are closed.

Supported by

Edited by:

Enjoy Our Newsletters!

navegacion-segura-google navegacion-segura-mcafee-siteadvisor navegacion-segura-norton