A jarring new study by UNICEF, created in conjunction with several local universities, has revealed that 48 percent of Argentina’s children and adolescents under 18 are poor, according to the organisation’s multidimensional definition of poverty.
Of those 6.3 million children, a further 20 percent live in extreme poverty, the UN organisation said this week.
Traditionally, poverty has been defined by a household’s inability to financially cover a basic basket of goods and services, such as consumer goods and rent. Extreme poverty is defined as a household’s inability to meet the financial cost of a basic food basket.
However, UNICEF’s multidimensional definition of poverty focuses on the absence of access to several rights outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: education, social protection, adequate housing, basic sanitation, access to safe water and a safe home.
Beyond financial capability, the deprivation of any of those dimensions leads to a situation of poverty. This is where the 48 percent statistic comes from, with 20 percent of Argentina’s children being defined as living in “severe” poverty due to living in a flood zone or near a garbage dump or never having gone to school between the ages of seven and 17.
The UNICEF study, Monetary poverty and non-monetary deprivations, also implements an integrated methodology, using both definitions of poverty to reach a combined statistic. According to this integrated approach, 16.3 percent of the general population (7.2 million) and 26.9 percent of children (3.5 million) live in poverty.
“Many OECD countries have already agreed on a multidimensional measurement of poverty and several countries in the region like Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Peru and Mexico have already released official government figures with multidimensional characteristics,” Sebastián Waisgrais, an economist and social inclusion specialist for UNICEF Argentina, told the Times in an interview.
“In Argentina there’s still a lack of perspective, or maturity, to leave income-based methodology behind and [to start using] a logic centred on human rights, which are central to defining policy. Maybe it’s a question of time. Or fear, because the multidimensional indicators usually show higher rates than monetary ones.”
Considering that UNICEF found that 3.5 million children live in poverty (due to both insufficient income and deprivations) and the total number of children living in non-monetary poverty is 6.3 million, that leaves 2.8 million children unaccounted for by official figures.
The problem isn’t just quantitative methodology, however. Waisgrais mentioned that even recognised cases of monetary poverty don’t always receive help, especially when it comes to the Asignación Universal por Hijo (AUH), for which “almost one million eligible beneficiaries don’t receive the aid because of their geographic location or bureaucratic problems.”
‘ONE STEP BEHIND’
Poverty in Argentina is not a new problem, but according to Waisgrais “poverty has been declining since the [economic] crisis of 2001, where we had levels of poverty of over 60 percent.” However, he outlined two main areas of concern: first, the sheer magnitude of the numbers, which show that almost one in two children are poor and second, that the problem will get worse.
“Reports are always one step behind, because we used data from 2006 to the first semester of 2018, and we know that inflation and the loss of jobs hit strongly in the second half of this year, especially considering the current context of fiscal austerity,” he explained. “So even by the government’s own admission, things are going to get worse at the end of 2018 and into 2019.”
In 2015, at the beginning of his presidential term, Mauricio Macri outlined three objectives, one of which was “zero poverty,” while the United Nations has asked all its member nations to cut the number of people living in poverty in half by 2030.
Despite the renewed focus being placed on reducing poverty, with increased numbers of AUH beneficiaries and “moves in the right direction,” Waisgrais says that there needs to be “more intelligence when it comes to social policy.”
“The emphasis is there, but there needs to be a much bigger effort. There are plenty of things that can be done on a federal level: reinforcing the AUH, including multidimensional indicators in national surveys and negotiating a starting point to redistribute funds from the [national] budget,” the UNICEF representative told the Times. “There are other issues though, such as the 500,000 young people outside of the education system, where the responsibility might lie more with each province.”
This alludes to a key aspect of the study, which outlines how the different deprivations are more keenly felt in every region of the country. In the Greater Buenos Aires, for example, children suffer more from lack of access to water and sanitation, while in the southern region there are more marked problems with social protection and children skipping school.
Waisgrais believes that reinforcing the AUH and other social measures was key to at least begin to tackle the problem.
“In the short term, within a context of fiscal austerity, finding the budget to allocate social protection and food aid should be prioritised in order to tackle the immediate issues of the crisis,” he said.
“The AUH has been politicised and debated, but [the debate is] based on a lot of myths, like the idea that people have children in order to receive benefits or that it discourages [people from] working. There is no evidence to support that: 90 percent of beneficiaries are women and the average amount of children is 1.8, so there is no increase in fertility due to the AUH,” Waisgrais said. “We’ve found that it’s the main safety net when we visit these neighbourhoods, so despite inflation and bureaucratic issues, it still has a massive impact.”
In order for the short-term measures to be more than palliative steps, Waisgrais emphasised that long-term, intelligent planning for social policy was needed. The study concludes that the implementation of multidimensional poverty indicators is needed to understand the multifaceted nature of poverty and to create adequate policies to solve the issue.
For his part, Waisgrais told the Times that a long-term priority should be reintegrating minors that are not in the education system, especially considering the “breakdown of social structures” caused by the 2001 crisis that exacerbated the country’s levels of inequality which persist 17 years later.
“The risk is that we’ve been losing generations since 2001. The problem is that when you have that many people outside of the system, achieving a cohesive society becomes very difficult and we end up with more restrictive, harsher measures,” concluded Waisgrais.