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OP-ED | 24-02-2024 06:08

Poverty also in the debate

Discussing figures is one thing and denialism quite another – this applies to the human rights debate and it also applies to poverty.

If Christ is quoted by all four gospels as saying: “The poor you will always have with you,” that would seem to be at least one Biblical truth which has withstood the test of time two millennia later – not least here in Argentina where the Social Debt Observatory of the UCA Catholic University has recently placed a 57.4 percent majority of the population below the poverty line, the worst such figure since the 2001-2002 meltdown.

The problem of poverty is beyond dispute but what seems more debatable is that extremely precise 57.4 percentage. With the aggressive impoverishment being inflicted by ongoing austerity measures and plunging real wages and pensions, there is a momentum for arguing that it could be higher, moving towards two-thirds – President Javier Milei himself set a figure of 90 percent should a potential hyperinflation materialise. But the percentage could also be lower – it defies logic that a system devoting over a quarter of gross domestic product to social spending of one sort or another could be so inefficient as only to keep two Argentines out of every five out of poverty, an anomaly which merits deeper analysis. The sight of people sleeping in the streets and beggars at the corner is impossible to avoid these days yet the malnutrition afflicting the world’s poorest countries is a relatively isolated phenomenon (outnumbered by the obesity which is the product of dietary deficiencies of a different kind). What would be the true percentage of poverty?

Yet this hunt for an exact percentage is misguided along the lines of taking the disputed figure of 30,000 missing during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship and making this issue stand or fall on its accuracy. Any brainless dogmatism that this figure was not one more or less than 30,000 would obviously be a highly vulnerable fetish, yet to imagine that the case against state terrorism ends there would be grandly missing the point. Discussing figures is one thing and denialism quite another – this applies to the human rights debate and it also applies to poverty.

Yet after warning against the figures as being the main point, they also warrant a closer look. Firstly, the UCA measurement of poverty is multi-dimensional – a full explanation of their complex methodology would exceed the limits of this space but their criteria go far beyond daily bread. And secondly, the measurement of poverty in general is so very relative. President Milei likes to glorify the half-century between 1880 and 1930 (at least until “one man, one vote” in 1916) yet the world in that half-century averaged around five percent of current economic output shared among some 20 percent of the current global population – obviously a much poorer planet (life expectancy in Argentina’s 1914 census was 49). Critics of populism often point to only four or five percent of the population below the poverty line half a century ago yet documentaries of the late football superstar Diego Maradona show him growing up in those years in living conditions typical of his class which today would be shared by only a minority even of the destitute (15 percent, according to the latest UCA survey). In the past century Canadians were puzzled by how their poverty data stayed the same despite evident economic growth until somebody pointed out that poverty was defined as less than half the average income. Such examples could be multiplied ad infinitum.

Beyond such limited gestures as doubling child benefits and the 70,000-peso bonus for the minimum pension, President Milei’s government has no short-term answers for poverty despite the visiting International Monetary Fund second-in-command Gita Gopinath delivering a ritual reminder “to protect the vulnerable.” Milei would argue that he is working towards a more sustainable growth path in the longer term rather than the stop-go consumer-led growth of much of this century as the way out of poverty (points he doubtless made to Pope Francis in the Vatican earlier this month). He might also defend his glorification of decades long past by pointing to the much greater social mobility back then which he seeks to restore (a mobility which can always be downward as well as upward, of course).

Given that this new government is still well short of the famous 100 days, everything remains to be seen. Poverty seems to be fighting a losing battle against strikes, crimes and political tensions for pride of place in the public agenda yet the resignation of “the poor are always with us” must be resisted. 

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