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Perfil

ARGENTINA | 19-05-2024 05:52

Behind the figures: Crowded soup kitchens, empty classrooms, impoverished pensioners

Argentina’s poverty index has grown almost seven points in the last three months and the impact can be seen at schools, soup kitchens and shops across the country. On the streets, millions can’t meet their basic needs. The reality behind the numbers.

In the first quarter of this year Argentina added 3.2 million more poor people to its numbers. According to a study by the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, 48.9 percent of the population is living below the poverty line. The jump in the last three months was the biggest quarterly increase since this registration started in 2016. Last December poverty stood at 41.7 percent.

The numerical growth is felt in everyday life – at schools, at crowded soup kitchens, at shops when purchasing groceries and at pharmacies where pensioners can’t afford medicine.

“Earlier this month I saw a girl whom I’d never seen before in school. I asked her: ‘Why don’t I know you, why were you absent?’ And she told me: ‘On Wednesday and Fridays I don’t come because my parents have no money to pay the bus or petrol so I cannot come any day,’” state school-teacher Paula Nader told Perfil.

Children are those most affected by rising poverty indices. According to the latest report by the INDEC national statistics bureau last December, poverty affects 58.4 percent of those aged under 15 – a figure way above the general average.

“Another pupil told me that at his home they do not have enough to eat so he cannot come on Tuesdays. He tries to attend as much as possible. There are so many others who do not say anything,” said Nader.

“I give classes at an art school and I often have to ask for materials, pens, erasers and paper to draw and it is becoming very difficult. They come without anything to school or almost nothing,” she explained. 

Absenteeism not only affects performance and the right to study but also nutrition.

“The cooperative was aware that nutrition is a very important need this year and gives them something in the morning and at lunchtime,” said Nader.

According to the latest data from the Catholic University of Argentina’s Observatorio de la Deuda Social (“Social Debt Observatory,” ODSA UC) poverty watchdog, last year an upper middle-class child aged between three and five years had 3.5 times more possibilities of attending an educational centre in comparison with their lower-class counterparts. In the case of adolescents this difference broadens to five times.

“You note the poverty by the number of people who come to the soup kitchens. The people in charge of them say that three new families come every day,” said Margarita Barrientos, the head of the Los Piletones soup kitchen. “They are people with jobs but they still do not have enough money.”

The Fundación Margarita Barrientos leader continued: “You also see it in the street, in the people pulling a cart who had never done so before. We’ve come across families who said that they were unable to pay their rent while others survived by selling things: a fan, a television set, the cots of the children. These are people who do not want to live in the street and who does?”

 

Homeless and hungry

According to the data of Argentina’s 2022 national census, 2,962 people were homeless, of whom 60 percent live in and around this city.

The situation inland is different but no less critical. Barrientos has had to reopen her soup kitchen in Santiago del Estero where, according to official data, just 50 people were homeless in 2022. Poverty reached 53.2 percent of the population at the end of last year.

“Here there is great need. With the help of the [provincial] Social Development authorities, I could open the soup kitchen which I had closed down for some months. There are many underweight, malnourished children who do not go to school because they have to go out to work with their father,” explained Barrientos.

Government data published last December estimated poverty at 17.6 percent for those aged 65 or more. Experts doubt that figure.

“That’s measured very badly, it’s extremely outdated against the real situation. If we look at income, almost 80 percent of the eight million pensioners are below the poverty line,” explained Eugenio Semino, Argentina’s Defensor de la Tercera Edad (Ombudsman for the elderly).

The main poverty indicator in this age group is health.

“The pensioner has to choose between eating and taking medicine,” said Semino. That is serious, he added, because the first thing pensioners stop consuming are the medicines for chronic asymptomatic conditions.

“There are pathologies where nothing happens while they remain under observation and control. Without the latter they burst out into acute stages with serious or irreversible consequences,” said the expert.

The increased cost of public services and utilities, which many pensioners cannot pay, creates other problems.

“For the lack of alternatives they start saving in heating, for which they pay for with pneumonia,” concluded Semino.

Doctors also are sounding the alarm. “I’m seeing grave difficulties in being able to maintain treatment because the medicine is not arriving in the required quantities and people cannot buy it,” Dr Santiago Martínez explained to Perfil.

“I’m talking about medicine for chronic ailments but also about the medicine for the acute problems which arise from day to day,” said the doctor.

Another aspect affecting health is nutrition. “There are serious problems in maintaining a healthy diet or indeed any at all,” said Martínez.

The deterioration of mental health is also felt at doctors’ surgeries across Argentina.

“There is a social angst caused by the lack of work and the difficulties in being able to obtain the necessary money. These questions of anxiety determine a whole bunch of problems: depression, panic attacks, situations of violence and people doing harm to themselves. We see a lot of that,” affirmed Martínez. 

“The social fabric has been ruptured by this precarious economic situation, above all in sectors unaccustomed to these questions,” he added.

Facing this reality, the doctor concluded: “There are increasingly less professionals within the public sector, which makes the diseases more complex for lack of control, which has an impact especially on the poorest.”

The age group most affected by poverty, according to INDEC, is those between 30 and 64 where the percentage reaches 63.2 percent of the population. They are precisely those of working age but their wages continue to cumulatively lose ground against inflation.

“People buy what is necessary. They tend to buy a bit more at the corner store because of that urgency. Before you could stockpile a bit,” commented Héctor González Paván, a grocer and member of the Confederación General de Almaceneros. “As a grocer I have to look after myself as much as I can and I cannot stockpile either.”

Due to the long-term crisis, the staggered sale of products set in some months ago. “People say to you: ‘Could you sell me half of that squash?’ And so we have to cut it,” said González Paván.

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Agustina Bordigoni

Agustina Bordigoni

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