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October 25, 2014
Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The poverty of statistics II

If Argentina’s sociological debate tends to focus on poverty and destitution with an understandable stress on the latter, perhaps the most sensitive frontier lies elsewhere. Not only is destitution more clearly defined in statistical terms but the remedial action against it is much easier to discern. Firstly, while the poverty percentages differ wildly from INDEC statistics bureau’s most recent figures of below five percent from last year to the 36.5 percent posted by centre-leftist deputy Claudio Lozano’s IPyPP report last week, the range for destitution figures is only a few percent with far less of a credibility gap. The solutions against destitution are also much clearer — thanks to the universal child benefit and other social welfare legislation, there has been undeniable progress against destitution, with far more progress if inflation were brought under control.

Yet if destitution is a soluble problem with visible progress (which could be much greater without inflation), poverty in general is rather more complex. Perhaps the most vulnerable frontier nowadays is not so much between poverty and destitution as middle-class sectors slipping into impoverishment (and also vice versa, a poverty trap preventing entry into the middle class). Both cyclical and structural factors are at work here. Cyclically, it seems that various sectors are slipping in and out of poverty according to the balance between inflation, employment and salary hikes. But structurally speaking, upward social mobility is not at 20th century levels, especially with regard to the middle class, partly because the rewards for education are no longer so automatic — this problem is not limited to Argentina but, for example, a major sociological crisis in the United States whose middle class is no longer the world’s richest.

It would be absurd to go to the other extreme and deny that anybody who risks slipping from the middle class into poverty is not vastly better off than those on the border between poverty and destitution — furthermore, the undeniable progress thanks to the safety net offered by welfare benefits is increasingly precarious due to inflation. The fact that poverty hits youth harder according to all estimates (even if IPyPP’s contention that almost half the poor are young and over half the young are poor is based on its exaggerated figures) is worrying for the future. Poverty remains basically about the poor — but not completely.

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