Michael: To understand Colombia and its people you need to understand the government stratum system. In speaking people use the word estrato as in “He lives in estrato 4.” To my knowledge Colombia is the only country to have it as law. In the opinion of many the scheme has evolved to deciding how a person is viewed and what opportunities are available to them as well as giving the wealthy an upper-hand.
The stratums run from 1 to 6.
Stratum 1: Lowest class
Stratum 2: Low-middle class
Stratum 3: Middle class
Stratum 4: Upper middle class
Stratum 5: Upper class
Stratum 6: Wealthy
The idea is those in the higher stratum help pay for the services (water, electricity, gas) of those in the lower stratums.
An example would be that an estrato 6 home may pay $175 USD on their water bill while estrato 3, using the same amount of water, will have a bill for $100. Those in 1 and 2 will pay even less.
For me this is a good thing. People can save money by choosing not to live in a fancy neighborhood. There are many people I know who say they will never live in estrato 6. But I also know those who insist in living in estrato 6 even though they probably shouldn’t. They do it they say because it gives them better image for business and such.
Michael: One must remember that Colombia has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world. Thirty-four percent of the people live below the poverty level. It is not unusual then that almost 90% of the population lives in estratos 1,2 and 3. In the book “Colombia a Country Study,” the author writes “In other words only about 10% of the population lives in dwellings that are well built and located in well-developed neighborhoods with access to good utility services.”
As a visitor you might first encounter the system in conversations. Someone might say, “He thinks he’s estrato 10,” which means he is acting like someone superior to everyone else. “She dresses like an estrato 2 hooker,” is usually meaning she is scantily clad in cheap clothes. But you will also hear it when people tell you where they live such as, “Our apartment is estrato 5.”
If you are planning on becoming an expat, then you may wish to know the estrato of the area you are thinking of moving into. estrato 1 and 2 may put you in a less than desirable neighborhood. estrato 6 may push your budget for utilities.
If you are planning on purchasing an apartment in an incomplete building beware. Often times the contractor will advertise that it is estrato 3 or 4. However the government does not make the classification until the building is complete. You could easily end up paying the highest price for utilities.
In the rural area things may be a little different. The larger cities have the full range of Stratums. Many small towns only have Stratum 1 through 3.
Do not expect the estrato you start with to continue. However, I have never heard of an estrato decreasing, only increasing. Our friends built a home in an estrato 2 area. However, others built nice homes around them and now they get hit for estrato 6 services. My wife and I moved into a estrato 3 house. Million dollar homes began building around us. We did not receive any more money. Our utilities did not change. In fact things got worse and we had more water outages than before. But all of a sudden our water bill went up three notches as they moved us from middle class to wealthy.
Then sometimes it seems that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. While our water was re-evaluated to be a 6 our electricity stayed at 3. Another expat wrote that in his building the opposite happened. His electrical jumped up to 5 but the water remained at 2.
The stratum scheme sounds good. Those who have help out the have-nots. But many have found the division creates other problems. One major complaint is it helps the wealthy maintain their status. The United Nations group UN-habitat states that over time the system has grown into a mechanism for segregation.
An article by the International Federation of Housing and Planning (IFHP) quotes a project director of the urban consultancy firm Geografía Urbana that the system prevents physical and social mobility. For balance, the same article also quotes a former mayor of Bogotá who defends the system.
Blogger, Jeremy, on his blogsite The World or Bust, http://www.theworldorbust.com, wrote about what he calls the caste system in Colombia. In his writing he says that a seemingly bit twisted segregation and social order has been created.
Even within the strata the idea of helping is changing and more it seems to the advantage of the elite or wealthiest Colombians. In the book “Restoring Justice in Colombia: Conciliation In Equity” the authors states, “The burden of subsidies may have rested more heavily on stratum three because of the inequality in the economy of Colombia.” The above mentioned book of “Colombia: A Country Study,” states “The generous Subsidies that the state once granted to stratum three have been gradually dismantled, as a result millions of Colombians have had to live in hardship from day to day, forced to take out loans to make ends meet.”
Steven Bunce addressed the Colombian social strata when writing his doctoral thesis. In an article titled “Commonsense practice or state-sponsored caste system? Social stratification in Bogotá, Colombia,” he covers the stigma, the difficulty in moving up the social ladder and the effect on the elite’s perception of public interest.
Government stratums – good for the people or a tool, disguised as help, for the elite to maintain their position? The answer is in who’s eyes you look at it from. Either way it is a key component to understanding Colombia and its people.