What strata (estrato) are you in?

Barranquilla Barrios
Barranquilla, split by strata (a representation). Photo Credit: Katche Photography

Spend any length of time in Colombia, and you’ll probably come across the term estrato. Used in a variety of settings to differentiate fees or distribute social benefits, estratos—or “strata,” in English—constitute a ranking system that classifies people according to their economic means. While not the same as social class, this explicit numerical stratification does have important social dimensions that might seem confusing to outsiders. To help, here are some answers to common questions about this uniquely Colombian institution.

  • What are the origins of the stratification system? The current stratification system was designed in 1991 and codified in 1994 under the administration of President César Gaviria as a way to standardize progressive billing for public utility services (electricity, water, gas and trash collection). Previously, each utility company had its own method of determining differentiated costs, so there was no way to ensure that these were calculated fairly and consistently across the country. All Colombian residents can now be divided into six strata represented by the numbers 1-6, with members of stratum 1 paying the lowest price for utilities and members of stratum 6 paying the highest price.
  • What factors go into determining a person’s stratum? Strata are not assigned on an income basis, but rather according to housing conditions. The designation is applied directly to a dwelling, not to the people living in it. According to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE), relevant considerations include how well the dwelling is constructed, the quality of surrounding infrastructure, and how reliable the public services are in the area. The materials used to construct the roof, walls and floor of a house are taken into account (with preference given to more durable materials), as well as the presence or absence of green spaces, a terrace or lawn, and a garage.

Some scholars, such as Mina Rosero (2004), argue that income would more accurately reflect a family or individual’s economic means than housing conditions, and that the current system does not adequately capture low-income families living in high-quality housing nor account for high-income families living in low-quality housing. In response to this criticism, the DANE maintains that income is an unreliable indicator, “given the magnitude of informality and the continual displacement of families” in Colombia.

  • What do the numbers mean?

Level 1: lower-low
Level 2: low
Level 3: upper-low
Level 4: medium
Level 5: medium-high
Level 6: high

Levels 1, 2 and 3 receive subsidized public utility bills—i.e., they pay less than market price for utilities. Level 4 residents pay market price, while levels 5 and 6 pay a price that is higher than the market value in order to subsidize the lower strata. According to statistics collected by the Mayor’s office in 2011, the majority (56%) of Barranquilla’s residents are classified as strata 1 and 2.

Strata also impact a wide range of other public functions, such as university tuition, the price of public museum tickets, and subsidized school lunches.

  • Who decides? Strata are determined by each city or district’s Permanent Committee for Socio-Economic Stratification, led by the Mayor’s office and including representatives of the public utility companies and the community. The committee is responsible for guaranteeing that stratification decisions are made in accordance with the methodologies published by the DANE, and taking appeals cases when residents feel that their housing units have been classified incorrectly.
  • What social implications does it have? Although there might be a general tendency for upper-class citizens to live in high-stratum residences, it would be a mistake to equate strata with social class. In her 2008 paper on social stratification in Bogotá, Consuelo Uribe-Mallarino points out that strata function independently from variables tied to class, like last name and family origin. Thus, a person of high class could be categorized in one of the lower strata depending on where he/she lives, and vice versa.  Strata in this sense are more flexible than traditional notions of social class.

A person’s stratum is not, however, devoid of social meaning. It isn’t uncommon to hear remarks such as se le notó el estrato (“one could sense his stratum”) when the speaker wishes to denigrate another person’s apparently lower-class behavior; personal ads have been known to sometimes specify the stratum of the desired companion. Arturo Wallace’s analysis (in Spanish) for the BBC offers an informative exploration of the ways in which people associate particular cultural characteristics with members of each stratum.

While some praise the current stratification system for making utilities more affordable for people with less economic means, others have criticized it for further cementing divisions between haves and have-nots. Colombian writer Juan Cárdenas—author of the novel Los estratoshas expressed that the strata are a way of “formalizing castes and [exercising] social control;” UN-Habitat official Roberto Lippi similarly slammed Colombia in an interview with El Tiempo for being, “the only country I know of that uses social stratification for the granting of subsidies… [no other country] focuses on housing. They all focus on the person.”  The housing-based subsidy program has also come under fire for keeping poor people in particular geographic areas by raising their utility fees if they choose to move to a higher-stratum house or apartment.

Accusations of social stigmatization, segregation, and financial inefficiency have led to talk of reforming the subsidized utility system. Whether an income-based program would better serve the country’s poor is an ongoing debate; in the meantime, estratos remain a pervasive—if controversial—aspect of life in Colombia.

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Mathilda is a graduate student in Spanish at the University of Virginia. She is currently living in Barranquilla, where she works as a Fulbright English teaching assistant at the Universidad del Atlántico. Having studied Spanish and Persian, Mathilda’s research interests are focused on comparing conflict and development dynamics in Colombia and Afghanistan.