Over the past 15 years, Mexico once defined by poverty and beaches has progressed politically and economically in ways rarely acknowledged by Americans debating immigration. Even far from the coasts or the manufacturing sector at the border, democracy is better established, incomes have generally risen and poverty has declined. Circumstances in Jalisco, a state in west-central Mexico, are illustrative: The recession cut into immigrant earnings in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, even as wages have risen in Mexico, according to World Bank figures. Jalisco’s quality of life has improved in other ways, too. About a decade ago, the cluster of the Orozco ranches on Agua Negra’s outskirts received electricity and running water. New census data shows a broad expansion of such services: water and trash collection, once unheard of outside cities, are now available to more than 90 percent of Jalisco’s homes. Dirt floors can now be found in only 3 percent of the state’s houses, down from 12 percent in 1990. I was recently admiring Walker Evans’s photographs of Depression-era sharecroppers in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, his masterpiece with the writer James Agee. The pictures of dirty-faced families in tattered clothes and tumbledown shacks reminded me that within my grandparents’ lifetime America was to a large extent a “second-world” country (if that), by today’s standards. In the broad sweep of history, American standards of living have come a long way in an amazingly short period of time. As Mexico continues to improve its physical and institutional infrastructure, educate its populace, and put productivity-enhancing technology to better and more widespread use, its standard of living will swiftly approach America’s. “Catch-up” growth is swift. When a typical Mexican can expect to live at a level of comfort comparable to a typical 1960s American, the “problem” of Mexican immigration will be no more. An overwhelming majority of Mexicans want to stay in Mexico and, as we are seeing, they do stay when Mexico offers even a relatively middling level of opportunity and material welfare.
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