The Dominican Republic has long been viewed primarily as an exporter of sugar, coffee, and tobacco, but in recent years the service sector has overtaken agriculture as the economy's largest employer, due to growth in tourism and free trade zones. The country suffers from marked income inequality; the poorest half of the population receives less than one-fifth of GDP, while the richest 10% enjoys nearly 40% of GDP. High unemployment and underemployment remains an important long-term challenge. The growth of the Dominican Republic's economy slowed in 2008-09 because of the global recession, but still remained one of the fastest growing in the region.
More than a third of the country’s total population lives in poverty, and almost 20 per cent are living in extreme poverty. In rural areas poor people constitute half of the population. The poorest of the poor include Dominicans of Haitian origin living in the border areas. They are particularly vulnerable, and they suffer not only from low incomes and poor living conditions but also from social exclusion. In all groups, women who are heads of households and children are extremely vulnerable. Because they are without proper documentation such as birth certificates and identity papers, about 20 per cent of the poorest Dominican families do not benefit from most types of social assistance programs.
The persistence of rural poverty is the result of several factors, including government priority given to developing the tourism, industry and services sectors during the last decade. Agricultural productivity is low. The country’s poor farmers have little land and their production is too low to enable them to maintain their families. A large number of small-scale subsistence farmers and their families have to seek off-farm employment or another income-generating activity to supplement household incomes.