March 9, 2014
Poverty: a tragedy beyond numbers
The poor are always with us, we are informed by St. Matthew’s Gospel, but exactly how many do they number (an eternal question in Argentina)? Various estimates are offered but the two extremes in this debate are invariably the same — the UCA Catholic University always weighs in at the top end (with over 10 million people or at least a quarter of the population as its latest figure) while INDEC statistics bureau minimizes those below the poverty line (under five percent and less than half a million households). One obvious way to resolve this dispute might seem simply to ask people whether they felt poor but if this were to be tried in today’s Argentina, the total would probably be closer to 30 million than 10. Playing the role of the weakest is also a national sport in this country.
INDEC’s methods for calculating poverty are widely questioned because they stem from unrealistic food and service prices based on inflation denial but even if they had more statistical rigour, they would be inadequate in many ways because poverty is relative to expectations as much as any fixed standards. Within this vast twilight zone UCA can freely multiply poverty although even within its report one professor gives hard-core social exclusion as six or seven percent — i.e. much closer to INDEC figures at some three million than the 10 million. Argentina would suffer more poverty than Brazil or Peru, and would be about the official poverty line of Colombia or Venezuela, according to UCA figures. The lack of serious official statistics opens up a world where anything is possible. Beyond the polarized figures of INDEC and UCA, the case is that poverty is inherently elusive. Expectations will always be highly relative in a growing economy while the poverty line of a progressive society should always be raising the bar. Thus some decades ago there was a debate in Canada over why the percentage of poor never came down until it was explained that poverty was defined as half the average income so that it stayed the same, whatever the growth. By defining poverty as any household below 23,000 dollars a year, the United States has thrice the percentage of the INDEC figure but that sum would be almost 20,000 pesos a month for somebody who knows the right place to change money.
Yet whether UCA or INDEC figures, there is no rosy scenario with poverty — even three million in infrahuman conditions are still people before all else and also desperate people who can become cannon fodder for the worst kind of social turbulence, as we have seen this month. Surely this should be the biggest challenge in the new year for politicians, economists and statisticians of all stripes.