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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 02-02-2019 11:49

Is there any way to reduce the blight of poverty?

Now the real unpadded figures on poverty are to the detriment of the current government that decided the country had to go back to realistic statistics.

Just about every government in the last century, and probably more, has made some sort of promise, empty as expectable, to defeat the desolation of poverty that seems to be entrenched and apparently unbeatable. Perhaps some form of early search might lie in the question how we perceive poverty? How do each of us contemplate the way to build an answer and thence more importantly, a solution from that small, elementary stage? Or perhaps better, the question might have to be: how much do we know about the individual, or the whole family, who end up begging in the streets and how much does their appearance represent real circumstances that speak of a severe beggarly state?

The thought is prompted on a regular basis by the figures generated by research institutes, such as the Catholic University of Argentina (UCA) and its Social Debt Observatory, and others like it which have functioned without restriction since the start of the Kirchner kitchen – where any sort of figure could be cooked up. Now the real unpadded figures are to the detriment of the current government that decided the country had to go back to realistic statistics.

Strangely though, the previous government’s restrictions did work for some who preferred to believe them, hence the big percentage climbs in poverty came before, at the start of the century and in the middle of the financial crisis, and again now. For example, La Nación reported in March, 2001, that there was an alarming rise in the number of people sleeping rough on the streets. A few months later, Clarín said on November 6, 2001, that there was a growing number of beggars on the streets of Buenos Aires, figures being added to by the homeless who were unable to weather the crisis.

But this was small stuff compared with what lay ahead. The newspaper El Comercio said on September 28, 2016, that the number of poor stood at 32.2 per cent of the population, while the rate of those in extreme poverty stood at 6.3 per cent. And then in May, 2017, an independent research institute (CIPPES) quoted in Infobae said that the number of youths in poverty reached 46 per cent of children and adolescents under the age of 17.

The language adjusts to the crisis. People, and non-people such as politicians are in general, and government officials (who probably are not people also) refer to a section of the population “as those who live in a street situation” (which means “personas en situación de calle”). Come back George Orwell, all is forgiven.

Again, from Infobae, owned by swift-mover Daniel Haddad and run by the formidable, former Gente editor, Gabriela Cociffi, came the news on December 13, quoted from UCA, that poverty had grown to 33.6 per cent in Argentina, up 19 percent from the figures for 2017. That means that 13.2 million people in Argentina suffer a state of poverty. That is a substantial bite out of a population of 44.3 million, a small total when considered in the context of the spread of our land.

There is a huge distance between reading those figures, understanding the enormous social and economic damage they represent, and trying to think why there appears to be no comprehensive study generated in academe or by any government department with responsibilities in research and in recommending action to reverse the fact that Argentina is a poor country with rich, unexplored, unshared wealth. Some papers, however, exist.

When hoping to say something sensible and useful in an article like this, I went in search of documents in the local academic world (not in the field of expatriate research which usually has to serve different purposes or aims). But, no, there seemed to be little satisfaction in the bibliographical lists offered by Google. Most papers or essays were relatively short and appeared to have no chance of sensible application. In fact, some papers verged on the ridiculous.

Take just one sample from the conclusions of a brief essay published by the University of Buenos Aires. The author will not be identified because he/she might be described as outrageously stupid. A final, descriptive paragraph of this read: “So, according to the information herein offered, we consider that poverty is a current social problem in Argentina which has to be dealt with urgently and in the short term through suggestions and plans aimed at reducing the problem and proving greater welfare for all Argentines where nobody will be excluded and where all will be dealt with justly and in social justice.” (In the original Spanish, “De acuerdo a lo expuesto, consideramos que la pobreza es una problemática social vigente en Argentina la cual debe ser tratada con urgencia a corto plazo mediante propuestas y planes tendientes a disminuir la misma y proporcionar un bienestar mejor para todos los argentinos, que nadie sea excluido y que todos sean tratados con equidad y justicia social.”) The text, you will have guessed, is titled Poverty in Argentina and it was published 10 years ago.

In bitterness, which is often an unfair state of mind admittedly, I fell back on my choice writer (medic, criminologist, psychoanalyst, essayist, novelist, socialist, etc., in Argentina), José Ingenieros (born in Italy, 1877, died in Argentina, 1925), who wrote in his essay, The Mediocre Man (1913): “When moral destitution overwhelms a society, blame is with all who for lack of culture and ideals have failed to support their country: all those who have lived off without working for their country.” (“Cuando las miserias morales asolan a un país, culpa es de todos los que por falta de cultura y de ideal no han sabido amarlo como patria: de todos los que vivieron de ella sin trabajar para ella.”)

It is not fair to mention or quote from, but the most impressive document on the subject of the poor in a society is another. It now is probably seen only as a historical document. This book is London Labour and London Poor: Cyclopedia of the Conditions and Earnings. Those that will work, those that cannot, and those that will not work., by Henry Mayhew. It was published in London in 1861. And it is still an amazing reference book.

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Andrew Graham-Yooll

Andrew Graham-Yooll

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1994-2007).


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