Frequent natural disasters contribute significantly to Honduras’ high poverty rate.
Here, the aftermath of hurricanes Eta and Iota can be seen in the neighborhoods surrounding El Progreso, Honduras.

Poverty in Honduras: Causes, Challenges and How Catholics Can Help

Honduras is the second-poorest country in Central America and one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. While the country has experienced modest economic growth in recent years, this progress has not been enough to address the poverty and underemployment that prevent many families from improving their lives.

But what are the root causes behind such extreme poverty? How does economic hardship affect the daily lives of Honduran families, and what is the Church doing to relieve their burdens? By taking a closer look at poverty, identifying its contributing factors and understanding its impact on human lives, we can better support Catholic missions and effectively fuel their efforts to empower the poor.

An Overview of Poverty in Honduras

While poverty estimates vary between sources, The World Bank reports that more than 48% of Honduras’ population lives below the poverty line, with one in five Hondurans living on less than $1.90 per day. The country’s GDP per capita is just $2,574 — one of the lowest in North America.

As is true for most of Honduras’ neighboring countries (such as Guatemala and Nicaragua), poverty in Honduras is primarily a rural problem. The country’s wealth is concentrated between two major cities: San Pedro Sula in the north and Tegucigalpa in south-central Honduras. Beyond that narrow strip, poverty is widespread, pervading the rural regions throughout eastern, southern and western Honduras.

The World Bank reports that more than 60% of Honduras’ poor live in rural communities. Still, urban poverty is on the rise as landless families migrate to cities to seek employment opportunities.

Causes of Poverty in Honduras

Several factors contribute to poverty in Honduras. Natural disasters, overdependence on agriculture, high underemployment, political conditions and a high crime rate create economic obstacles that prevent families from improving their situations.

Natural Disasters

Honduras has a long northern coast on the Caribbean Sea and a short southwestern coast on the Pacific Ocean, leaving the country vulnerable to natural disasters. Most recently, hurricanes Eta and Iota delivered back-to-back blows, destroying crops and displacing about 494,000 people.

One of the country’s most destructive storms was Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which killed about 7,000 Hondurans and caused billions of dollars in damage. Crops were devastated — particularly bananas, which were Honduras’ second-largest export at the time. Honduran officials estimated that Hurricane Mitch reversed 50 years of economic development.

Overdependence on Agriculture

Honduras’ economy is heavily dependent on agriculture, which employs nearly 40% of the labor force (CIA World Factbook). For many years, the nation’s largest exports were coffee and tropical fruit (though exports now include significant shipments of apparel and insulated wiring).

The agricultural sector is extremely vulnerable to fluctuating market prices and natural disasters. Additionally, large portions of the terrain are mountainous, limiting available land for large-scale agriculture. Destructive farming methods have also compromised the soil’s fertility, making it increasingly difficult for farmers to produce a profitable harvest. Such challenges make it difficult for Honduras to compete with neighboring countries, which produce similar crops. In rural communities, families often rely on subsistence farming, growing barely enough food to feed themselves.

High Underemployment

Honduras’ unemployment rate is reported at only 5.6%, but about one-third of the population is underemployed (CIA World Factbook) — meaning they may suffer hunger, be unable to pay for even basic medical care, or live in unsafe or unsanitary living conditions as a result of their extremely low pay scale. Slow job creation and an abundance of unskilled laborers contribute to this problem and impact the livelihoods of families in various ways.

Job opportunities are particularly scarce for members of the lower class. As a result, Honduras faces high levels of economic inequality and has one of the smallest middle classes in all of Latin America. The situation is especially challenging for the landless poor, who either earn minuscule wages through seasonal farm work or migrate to larger cities in search of employment.

Political Conditions

Since earning its independence from Spain in 1821, Honduras has experienced nearly 300 small uprisings, civil wars and changes of government. Such events have often monopolized resources, preventing significant progress and development of infrastructure.

For example, following a coup in 2009, the turmoil reversed many efforts to reduce social inequality. It resulted in decreased foreign investment, decreased social spending, decreased minimum wage and increased poverty.

High Crime Rate

The World Bank group reports that Honduras sees 39 intentional homicides for every 100,000 people. This number is a significant decrease from previous years, but still makes Honduras one of the top five countries for highest number of recorded homicides.

Gangs and the drug trade play a significant role in Honduras’ high crime rate. Poor, vulnerable children often join gangs, seeking provision, protection and belonging; thus, the cycle of violence and poverty continues. Additionally, many wealthier nations are unwilling to invest in Honduras due to the perception of crime and corruption (CIA World Factbook).

Related: A Catholic Response to 2020’s Record-Breaking Hurricane Season

Due to poverty, malnutrition and other complex factors, many children in Honduras drop out before reaching sixth grade. By providing nutritious meals, we can help children stay in school and achieve God’s best for their lives.

The Challenges Faced by Honduras’ Poor

Without a reliable, substantial source of income, many Hondurans are struggling to secure life’s essentials. The poorest families live in one-room adobe homes, which often do not have access to clean water and sanitary bathrooms. In 2020, UNICEF reported that 40% of the people are using unsafe water sources, and fewer than one in five Hondurans in rural areas have proper sanitation.

Malnutrition is a significant issue as well. Families that rely on subsistence farming for food typically eat small, repetitive meals of maize, beans and rice. World Food Program USA states that chronic malnutrition can reach 48.5% in rural areas. Nearly one in four Honduran children show signs of stunting, and 29% are battling anemia — issues exacerbated by the lack of clean water and the prevalence of waterborne diseases. Making matters worse, the underdeveloped infrastructure leaves many sick people without access to medical care.

These challenges are often hardest on children. Due to illness, malnutrition, economic hardship and other complex factors, many boys and girls fall behind in school. According to The World Bank’s blog, the dropout rate among sixth graders is nearly 40%. Many students leave school in order to find work and help support their families. These children are especially vulnerable to gangs and other bad influences that promise provision and protection.

At Las Mercedes Nutrition Center, children such as Kedy Adonay Vega receive therapeutic feeding and lifesaving medical attention.

Cross Catholic Outreach’s Ministry Partners in Honduras

Our ministry partners in Honduras are working to address many of these issues and meet the urgent needs of Honduras’ most vulnerable children and families. Organizations such as Las Mercedes Nutrition Center and The Pearl Association are devoted to delivering relief, saving lives and sharing Christ’s mercy.

Las Mercedes Nutrition Center

The Las Mercedes Nutrition Center rescues malnourished children in rural communities surrounding El Progreso, Honduras. As Alicia Velasquez, the center’s administrative director, says, “Our mission is to give them back their life.”

Las Mercedes provides nutritious meals, medical intervention and round-the-clock care for children who are severely undernourished. To ensure lasting recovery, the center tracks each child’s health progress and educates parents on nutrition and hygiene. It also conducts regular community outreaches to distribute food, monitor malnutrition and build supportive relationships with local families. Established as an outreach of Our Lady of Las Mercedes Catholic Church, staff and volunteers also minister to families’ spiritual health, praying with them and encouraging them in their faith.

The Pearl Association

The Pearl Association (also based in El Progreso, Honduras) distributes urgently needed food, medicines, medical supplies and hygiene products to a vast network of institutions. They currently serve more than 70 institutions, including 55 health clinics and dispensaries, five hospitals, and a variety of schools and feeding centers located throughout four departments of Honduras.

Cross Catholic Outreach supports The Pearl Association by providing shipments of Vitafood — specially formulated meal packs designed to meet the needs of the malnourished — as well as medical supplies, over-the-counter medicines, pharmaceuticals and small pieces of medical equipment. These shipments recently helped The Pearl Association deliver much-needed relief to survivors after hurricanes Eta and Iota.

Help Cross Catholic Outreach Bless Honduras

Our devoted ministry partners in Honduras are working tirelessly to meet the needs of vulnerable children and families — but they need our help.

With support from our donors, Cross Catholic Outreach is able to provide funding and ship relief supplies to empower our ministry partners in Honduras. Your generosity guarantees that organizations like Las Mercedes and The Pearl Association can continue their merciful missions without fail.

Please donate below to help reach Honduras’ most vulnerable families with critical resources and the transformative mercy of Christ.

Donations from this campaign will be used to cover any expenditures incurred through June 30, 2024, the close of our ministry’s fiscal year. In the event that more funds are raised than needed to fully fund the project, the excess funds, if any, will be used to meet the most urgent needs of the ministry.