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Panama: The Lower Class
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment > Social Organization > Urban Society > The Lower Class


The lower class constituted the bulk of the country's urban population. As a group, it was stratified by employment and race. In terms of livelihood it was made up of unskilled or semiskilled workers, including artisans, vendors, manual laborers, and servants. The basic cleavages were between those who were wage earners and the self-employed, and those employed in the former Canal Zone, who constituted a "labor elite" earning twice the average of the metropolitan region as a whole.

Self-employment offered a precarious existence to most who pursued it, but served as an alternative for those unable to find other work when the economy contracted in the late 1970s and 1980s. Unemployment ran in excess of 10 percent in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and much of it was concentrated in the metropolitan region, which accounted for approximately four-fifths of the country's jobless. In poorer neighborhoods, the rate ran closer to 25 percent, and among low-income families, roughly 40 percent were unemployed.

Because the majority of rural-urban migrants to the metropolitan region were women, women outnumbered men in many larger urban areas. Many came in search of work as domestics. Young, single mothers constituted a significant proportion of the urban population; in Colón, for example, they represented one-third of all families. Women suffered higher unemployment rates than did men, and their earnings, when they were employed, averaged less than half those of males.

Ethnically, the lower class had three principal components: mestizo migrants from the countryside, children and grandchildren of Antillean blacks, and Hispanicized blacks -- descendants of former slaves. The split between Antillean blacks and the rest of the populace was particularly marked. Although there was some social mixing and intermarriage, religious and cultural differences isolated the Antilleans. They were gradually becoming more Hispanicized, but the first generation usually remained oriented toward its Caribbean origins, and the second and third generations were under North American influence through exposure to United States citizens in the former Canal Zone where most were employed. Although some Antillean blacks were middle class, most remained in the lower class.

Increasing numbers of urban lower-class parents were sending their children to school. A secondary-school diploma, in particular, served as a permit to compete for white-collar jobs and elevation to middle-class status. This kind of mobility was on the rise throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Mestizos were better able to take advantage of these opportunities than most, but Antilleans who were educated and conformed to Hispanic cultural norms enjoyed considerable mobility as well. The National Guard, and later the FDP, have been an avenue of advancement for both Hispanic and Antillean blacks. A substantial portion of the enlisted personnel have come from the ranks of the black urban poor and, increasingly, the rural mestizo population. Enlisted personnel could hope to advance to the officer corps. Under the Torrijos regime, many troop commanders were promoted from the ranks.

Data as of December 1987

Last Updated: December 1987

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Panama was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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