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Want to slash poverty? Look to Latin America.

While poverty has grown in the United States, it's been shrinking in Central and South America.

Brazilian children use new computers in their classroom. A development program in Brazil offered small amounts of cash to poor families if they sent their children to school, contributing to a swift rise in literacy and decline in poverty.

Agilix Labs, Inc. / AP / File

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One in 10 South Americans – about 38 million people – escaped poverty during the past decade. That's remarkable progress by any measure.

Contrast that with the United States, where poverty has been growing due to a decade-long stagnation of income for the middle class and the Great Recession. In 2009, the US had more poor people than in any of the 51 years since poverty levels have been estimated.

Of course, America's poor are far better off than South America's poor. And the US still has a much lower poverty rate (14.2 percent versus around 70 percent). South America remains infamous for huge income gaps between a tiny elite and masses of people making, often, just $1 or $2 a day.

Still, 10 years of growing prosperity has shrunk that gap. The credit goes to democratic leftist governments that have vastly boosted social spending to help the poor, maintains Mark Weisbrot, a left-of-center economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

Half of that improvement comes from Brazil. Under outgoing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the nation pushed up the minimum wage a real 65 percent in eight years, helping to raise the wages of tens of millions of workers, including many receiving more than minimum wage. A program offered small cash grants to poor families if they sent their children to school.

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