“My son asked me: ‘Mummy, why are we poor, why do we have nothing?’ What am I supposed to say to him?”
Twenty-six-year old Silvia struggles unsuccessfully to fight back tears as she shares her story. She lives on the outskirts of Salta, the northern city identified this week as a conurbation with one of the highest poverty rates in the country.
Argentina’s poverty rate rose to 40.9 percent in the first half of the year, official data shows. According to the INDEC national statistics bureau, Salta and its surrounding towns are the fourth poorest after Concordia (in the province of Entre Rios), Resistencia (Chaco) and Greater Buenos Aires, with 45.5 percent of the population living below the poverty line.
The survey takes data from 31 urban areas in Argentina, extrapolating nationwide: calculating that a typical family of four needs 43,785 Argentine pesos (US$547) for food, health and education to avoid falling into poverty.
The number of poor people living in Salta and the surrounding area reached 288,748 in January to June this year, an increase of nearly 10 percent on the same period in 2019, meaning that 73 people have fallen into poverty every day.
Silvia has a basic monthly income of 17,000 pesos (US$212): 10,000 pesos from the IFE (Emergency Family Income payment, introduced during the Covid-19 crisis), and 7,000 pesos from the universal salary for families on low income.
She also works in the tobacco industry, one of the pillars of the economy in this part of Argentina, but it’s seasonal employment, only lasting seven or eight months a year. She can earn 1,000 pesos (US$12.50) a day planting in the fields or grading harvested tobacco.
Her partner Rubén is a builder, earning 900 pesos a day, but his work is sporadic. Silvia is not working at the moment. She’s a full-time mum to four children aged between three and eight years old.
Since quarantine began, instead of a 15-minute walk to the local school, Silvia has to juggle virtual classes with the kids as they share her mobile phone.
“I have to put credit on for them, because there’s no WiFi here,” she told the Times. “The kids don’t understand what’s going on. It’s painful for me to have to explain we haven’t got money to buy clothes or toys. The children pray every night that we get through this.”
A recent report by the pressure group Chicos.net underlined that in poorer households children have less access to technology, and often don’t have their own mobile phone, even less a computer.
“When they do have a mobile phone, its main function is for the adults to keep in touch, and it has to be shared with the rest of the family”, said Chicos.net President Marcela Czarny.
‘I can’t afford another meal’
Emilio 'El Pampeño' Ibañez, 69, is a retired agricultural worker with the same basic income: his pension of 17,000 pesos per month (US$212). He is one of Silvia’s neighbours.
Though he lives on his own, that still isn’t enough to survive on, so he also drives a tractor on a nearby farm two or three times a week, earning 600 pesos (US$7.50) per day.
“Last month I bought myself a new pair of shoes that cost me 2,800 pesos, and I didn’t have any money left for the rest of the week.
“If I’m at home, I cook myself a stew for lunch, and in the afternoon I have a cup of tea. I can’t afford another meal in the evening. Maybe once a month I might cook asado, it’s a luxury now.”
In 2020, the traditional Argentine asado is a single milanesa, says Ines Garcia, an energetic bundle of a woman who runs the Jesús te Ama (“Jesus Loves You”) comedor in Atocha 3, a sprawling new development on the outskirts of Salta city.
Since quarantine began, 50-year-old Inés has noticed a huge increase in families coming by for lunch: from 320 people in January to 480 people now.
Jesus te Ama, which also provides classes in reading, writing, and operates an impromptu children’s playgroup and old people’s drop-in centre, is open every day except Sunday.
When the Times visited the comedor, Inés and her cook Azucena Chaile were conjuring up a stew of rice, beef and potato for roughly 10 pesos per head.
Veronica Mamani, 22, who has two girls Bianca (4) and Rachel (2), said: “I only started coming during quarantine, because my partner isn’t working. Normally he does changas, odd jobs, whatever he can find, but there’s nothing going on.”
The comedor is a lifeline for Delia Rodríguez and her family too: she and her daughter Malvina, 37, are permanent carers to her husband Ángel Cesar, 70, who has suffered three strokes and needs 24-hour attention.
Sixty-year-old Delia is a regular volunteer at the soup kitchen, but has now come to rely on it to make sure everyone in her household of six gets at least one square meal a day.
“I don’t know what I’d do without it. We live on my husband’s pension. Once we’ve paid the electricity, bought gas cylinders for cooking and basic supplies at the corner shop, that’s it, there’s nothing left. We don’t spend anything on shoes or clothes.”
Lucas Dapena, head of Salta’s Consejo Economico y Social, a government-backed group which focuses on projects to improve quality of life, fears the true poverty rate in the province could already be much higher, as INDEC’s figures only measure up to the end of June.
Among the most disturbing revelations in this week’s report is that more than half the children in Argentina below the age of 14 (56.3 percent) are living below the poverty threshold.
“Education is the only way to break structural poverty, and it’s complicated now by the fact the children can’t go to school, and don’t always have access to technology,” said Dapena.
“We must try to ensure the economy doesn’t suffer more than it already has. So many people work in the informal economy, so they’re working one day and not the next. The only real solution is more money to help people through this crisis.”
On the east side of Salta, the barrio of Villa Juanita is home to roughly 12,500 people. Here poverty is rife and most live below the poverty line.
The pandemic delivered new challenges to this struggling neighbourhood. A community development project run by the religious organisation Prosoco has suspended its regular drop-in comedor because of fears over the spread of the virus, and reverted to home deliveries of essential food.
Instead, as co-ordinator Patricia Aguilera explained, “a lot of our work has been advising people on claiming government support. A lot of small businesses we’ve supported have closed down, there is little or no work, and the children are attending virtual classes with one mobile phone floating around the family.
“The only positive aspect is that we’ve seen an increase in small businesses run from home: pizza, cakes, sandwiches for delivery.”
As ever, at the sharp end, people adapt to survive.