Back in 2010, as I was filling out the US Census form, my brother-in-law seemed a little bit surprised that I checked-off “White” in the form. “You’re White?” he asked. I then had to explain to him that whites in the United States don’t only come in the light-skinned, light-haired, light-eyed varieties that he was used to. If you look closely at the form, there wasn’t much of anything else for me to write under “race”. I’m not Black. I’m not Asian. And I wasn’t about to declare the existence of a new race.
I have mixed feelings about putting labels on people for a variety of reasons. There’s this thing in epidemiology and biostatistics called the “ecological fallacy.” It’s when you assign the attributes of an entire population to an individual person. For example, if a city has a high level of diabetes amongst Mexican-Americans, then you might be inclined to say that a Mexican-American walking down the street has a very good chance of having diabetes, especially if they are overweight or obese and over 50 years of age. Now, you might be right or you might be wrong, but thinking that you’re right and not confirming it leads you into the ecological fallacy, and it might even get you embarrassed.
On the other hand, we need to assign these “labels” on people so that we can better describe them. Furthermore, we need to be able to identify groups that are underrepresented, underserved, or at higher risk for things. Without labels, it’s very hard to tell who needs what and where to focus our efforts, even if we sometimes fall for the ecological fallacy (or its opposite) in the process.
I hired a taxicab driver on Saturday to give me a tour of Barranquilla. He arrived at the apartment at 9am, and we headed out for a three-hour drive around town. We first drove into the downtown area from the north, aiming for the “Museo del Caribe” which sits right downtown. As we drove there, we talked about Barranquilla’s history, how he got into taxicab driving, and some of the things he’s seen as a driver. See, things were not always as they are now in Barranquilla. It went through a very violent phase in the recent past, the product of economic downturn and the drug trade. The driver, Enrique, told me that he had been driving for about 12 years after leaving his previous job. Like cabdrivers in other parts of the world, he’s seen stuff.
A few blocks from the museum, we turned into a somewhat interesting part of town. Just a few blocks from the downtown area, there are these industrial zones where men were loading and unloading trucks. There were also men with horse/mule/donkey-drawn carts loading and unloading scraps. These men go through the town buying scrap metal, old batteries, cardboard and other recyclables from households. “This is a dangerous part of town,” Enrique said. “If they see you’re not from here, they’ll rob you. We went from a stratum 4 to a stratum 2,” he added.
This was not the first time I had heard about social strata in Barranquilla in particular and Colombia in general. Neighborhoods in cities are divided into six strata, from the poorest at 1 to the richest at 6. It’s all part of a government plan to classify neighborhoods according to the property values, wealth of those who live there, safety, and other indicators. The reasoning for this is varied. On the one hand, some cities institute programs where people living in the higher strata pay more for services like electricity and water while those living in the lower strata pay less. It also helps in allocation of other services like police and delivery of public health programs.
My thinking about this is that it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t lead to further problems. Yeah, it’s easier said than done, but go along with me on this. If you live in stratum 1, you have several choices to make in life. (Some of which will be made for you.) You can choose to improve your living conditions and work together with others to bring it up to a higher stratum. However, you might be discouraged to do so because doing so means that you will have to pay more for services. Then again, crime and poverty are things that you might not want around regardless of whether you have to pay more in the long run.
The opposite is true for people in higher strata. You might be inclined to want to pay less for services, so you don’t worry too much if things happen around your neighborhood that might bring down the stratum ranking a little bit. What’s the difference between 5 and 6, anyway? Then you get into the broken windows social theory where living in a stratum 1 neighborhood might make you less inclined to want to fix things around you. Heck, you’re already at number 1, so it’s expected that things will be crappy. I’ve seen this a lot in Mexico, the United States, and now here in Colombia. If there is a pile of trash on the sidewalk, some people — enough to keep the problem going — are prone to throw more trash at it.
As we continued the tour, Enrique told me about other neighborhoods that we drove through. There was Simón Bolivar drive where William Knox Martin landed back in 1919 in his biplane. The drive didn’t exist back then. It was just a landing strip. A replica of his plane is there, surrounded by neighborhoods that are strata 3 and 4. There were shops on the main drive and very pretty houses going back from it. Enrique said that a house there was worth a quarter of what it would be worth in a 5 or 6 stratum, and ten times what it would be worth in strata 1 neighborhoods.
That could encourage people to improve their neighborhood’s stratum designation… Unless they’re so poor that they don’t own the homes they live in. Then they might be inclined to keep it in a lower stratum designation so that housing can be cheap. As you can see, these things are not easy to figure out or discuss.
The same kind of situation exists in cities in the United States, but without an outright designation of strata by the government. Instead, we have income-based services — from medical access to utility services — and other programs. We place labels like “low income” or “below poverty level” on neighborhoods in an attempt to describe them and guide the design and implementation of programs at all levels. So how good are those labels in a bigger sense?
Do people we call “poor” react to that label by wanting to get out of poverty? Or do they just decide to stay poor — or classified as poor — since poverty brings with it some benefits? (The latter being a tired argument that “conservatives” in the US, many of who get social assistance themselves, like to go on and on about.)
Only time will tell if this whole system of strata will work.
(If you want to see all the pictures I took on Saturday, you can see them on Flickr by clicking here.)
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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