D. S. Chandler’s careful study of Mexican montepíos, state-run agencies that provided pensions for the families of deceased government employees, is a welcome addition to the literature on colonial Latin America. The creation of the montepíos in the 1770s was an important step in the development of a modern welfare system. Although the pension funds covered a limited group of people—the surviving widows, minor sons, and unmarried daughters of civil servants—they represented a new concept of social insurance. Through them the Bourbon state expanded its responsibility for supporting unproductive members of society, people who had previously been left to depend on their extended families, religious brotherhoods, or private and ecclesiastical charity. Social welfare institutions, which have attracted so much attention from European historians disenchanted with the welfare state, have been largely neglected for Latin America. This tight, well-documented monograph is one of a very few such studies, and the first of an American montepío.

Because the montepíos touched on many aspects of colonial life, this book has something to interest a wide variety of scholars. It illustrates the intricacies of bureaucratic politics, with the predictable jockeying between American and Spanish officials, both sides trying to maximize their benefits while minimizing their costs. It demonstrates the deficiencies in the colonial economy, for the montepíos had a hard time finding reliable places to invest their principal. It shows the politicization of lending, for montepío loans (the agencies’ form of investment) usually went to those with good government connections. It suggests a tolerance of consensual unions and interracial coupling on the part of officials who had to approve the marriages that conferred pension rights. And, though the book’s emphasis is less on the pension recipients than on the pension fund itself, those people occasionally emerge in entertaining episodes of deceptive borrowers, deathbed marriages to obtain pensions, and family feuds that required the intervention of montepío officials.

Perhaps this book is most compelling as a cautionary tale for those of us who would rely on our own social security system to furnish pensions in old age. The montepíos were constructed just like our system, with pensions paid from a fund to which all eligible employees contributed. They remained sound for the first two or three decades (two, in the case of the small ministers’ fund, and three for the larger employees’ fund). But then, as the numbers of recipients grew—living to collect much more than the deceased relative had ever paid in—the system went into crisis. Despite progressive increases in the deductions paid in and reductions of pensions from one-fourth to one-tenth of the insured’s salary, the montepíos simply could not cover their costs. The pension system, already approaching bankruptcy by the opening of the nineteenth century, was dealt a death blow by the independence wars. Thus the experiment in social insurance lasted only 50 years. Its study nonetheless provides useful lessons for social welfare agencies today, as well as new archival material that deepens our understanding of the expanding state and the functioning of the bureaucracy, economy, and society of late colonial Mexico.