The underside of remittances

I’d always liked the idea of remittances – money sent from emigrant workers home – as a redistribution of wealth.  Then I visited my son, Trevor, in his Peace Corps village in El Salvador. Trevor estimates that all but two of the 100 houses in his village have at least one family member working out of the country.  In 2013, families in El Salvador received $4.2 billion in remittance money — a sixth of the country’s GDP, and 14 times it’s $290 million in aid. But remittances take a toll on individuals, families, and local economics.

On the one hand, there are cellphones, a new roof, and money to start businesses.  Julio returned from five years in the States, bought a motorcycle and a refrigerator chest, and now has a business driving at four a.m. to pick up fish and bring it up the mountain to sell. Most houses have floors and families can now afford operations and medical care.

On the other hand, families are physically split, for years at a time. I met Glendie, a young mother with a baby who cradled her phone while we ate papusas as she waited for the nightly call from her husband.  At Christmas Eve dinner, Elba’s son showed off his house and kids in Arkansas via Facetime.  When those who go to the States return, they remember the hard work, solitary nights, and for some, time in prison.  They love America but they talk about having been treated as invisible or as criminals.

And how does this affect the local economy?  Someone at my board meeting in Guatemala commented that, once there are two family members sending money home, there is no incentive to work.  The daily wage for someone working a cornfield in the hills above Trevor’s village is $6/day.

Our young people go to college; El Salvador’s young men and women go illegally to the United States.   What does it mean to have an economy and a culture based on remittances?

*Trevor came home unexpectedly last week, one year into what was expected to be two – Peace Corps El Salvador closed due to increasing violence.

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