Belize Table of Contents
This sector comprised the bulk of the Belizean population and was popularly known as the grass roots or roots class. It, too, was stratified by occupation and ethnicity. The lower sector consisted of unskilled or semiskilled urban workers, subsistence farmers, agricultural laborers, and the unemployed. These people shared, in addition to poverty and generally poor living conditions, severely limited access to land, higher education, or any other opportunity to change their marginal status. Possibilities for mobility were a main dividing line between the middle and lower sectors of Belizean society.
The ethnic composition of the lower sector varied by region. Most of the country's urban poor lived in predominantly Creole Belize City. With a population four times the size of the next largest urban area, Belize City was home to over half of all unemployed Belizeans in 1980. Many of the employed were engaged in ketch an kill jobs, temporary unskilled manual labor. No more than two-thirds of the employed population in 1980 had fulltime work.
Educational opportunities beyond the primary level were scarce for most poor urban families. Many children dropped out of school before completing their primary education. Children who finished school often lacked the grades or financial resources to attend secondary school. Because the government generally awarded scholarships according to academic performance rather than financial need, most poor Belizean families continued to lack access to education beyond the primary level.
In further contrast to the upper and middle sectors, many lower-sector households in Belize City were headed by single parents, usually women. Female workers generally received lower incomes than their male counterparts, and women experienced an unemployment rate 250 percent higher than men. In numerous cases, migration of both parents resulted in children being raised by siblings, older relatives, or friends of the family. Some of the more privileged members of Belizean society perceived that increases in juvenile delinquency, crime, and drug use among Belizean urban youth were directly attributable to breakdowns in family structure.
As with the population in general, a large percentage of the urban poor were young. Nationwide, over 40 percent of out-of-school youths aged fifteen to twenty-four lacked work, and youth unemployment rates in Belize City were even higher. Many unemployed youths in Belize City congregated on street corners or met in storefronts known as "bases." These young people were known as baseboys and basegirls. More privileged members of Belizean society tended to categorize baseboys and basegirls as criminals and delinquents, although the only thing many were guilty of was lacking opportunities for education and meaningful work.
Still, the lack of educational and employment prospects for the rural and urban poor in the 1980s did lead to dramatic increases in crime, especially in the drug trade. By the middle of the decade, Belize had become the fourth largest exporter (after Mexico, Colombia, and Jamaica) of marijuana to the United States. By 1987 crack cocaine and gangs had established a foothold among the youthful population of Belize City. By 1991, both gang membership and gang warfare had escalated dramatically, moving off the street corners of the poorer neighborhoods into the schools and major public spaces of Belize City. Gangs, drugs, and violence were the dominant realities with which nearly all Belizean urban youth, especially the poor, had to deal.
Extremely limited access to education and well-paying jobs characterized conditions for the poor in the district towns of Belize. But many people perceived the conditions in these towns as less severe than in Belize City. One exception was Orange Walk, which was known as Rambo Town, owing to the intensity of drugrelated violence there in the mid-1980s.
The most limited opportunities for education and economic advancement were found in rural areas. Rural primary schools had much higher rates of absenteeism and attrition than urban schools and all but three secondary schools were located in Belize City or the major district towns. Furthermore, the demands of agricultural work often prevented many children from attending school.
The rural poor were mostly Mayan and Mestizo subsistence farmers and agricultural laborers, although some Creole and Garifuna families were also included in this category. At the very bottom of both the rural and urban social hierarchies, however, were the Central American aliens who were employed in the lowest paid, least desirable occupations, such as unskilled labor in the sugar, citrus, banana, and marijuana industries.
Data as of January 1992
Belize Table of Contents