Cutbacks Threaten Argentina's Children-and Future

September 25, 2007

"Until last December, we observed evidence of malnutrition in some 30 children per month. Today the monthly average is more than 40. When these children come in to the clinic, we notice the signs even before we actually begin examining them. Their eyes are huge, their hair has turned yellow and stiff, their bellies are swollen, they don’t respond to stimuli," says Argentine doctor Mario Martínez, director of the Primary Care Center of Villa Quinteros in the northern province of Tucumán. Compared to most other Latin American countries, this kind of serious malnutrition used to be relatively rare in Argentina, but according to medical workers, an increase in seriously malnourished children is one symptom of the Argentine crisis. Another is a rapidly growing school dropout rate; some 20% of primary students have dropped out during the academic year now in progress. The youth crime rate is growing, too.

Many Argentines say such phenomena—which have reached crisis proportions over the last year—are the result of nearly a decade of neoliberal policymaking that has led to soaring unemployment and a huge increase in the number of Argentines who have fallen below the poverty line. Even more directly, they are the result of a sharply reduced government role in the areas of health and education. Despite neoliberal promises that the present pain will lead to a brighter tomorrow if the Argentine government imposes even more severe austerity measures, local experts say the effects of the cutbacks will be long-lasting and the nation’s future is being imperiled.

According to Argentina’s Confederation of Health Professionals, "Starting in 1995, the state began to relinquish its key responsibilities in health and education, handing over to the private sector the work of caring for the sick and children. In accord with agreements with the IMF, it cut the budgets for public hospitals, which had to start charging poor patients for services. While freezing the budget for public schools, the state set larger subsidies for private schools. It ended its preventive health care programs, suspended programs for mass vaccination and distribution of medicines to indigent patients, eliminated programs to equip hospitals and cut its contributions to doctors’ and nurses’ salaries."

"All the social indicators have crashed in the last ten years, a decade in which neoliberal economic policies determined by international financial institutions have been applied as in no other country in the world," says economist Mario Rapaport of the University of Buenos Aires. "Up until the middle of the 1970s Argentina was, in terms of income distribution, one of the most equitable countries in Latin America. In 1976, the last military dictatorship started to experiment with policies of exclusion which were fully carried out during Carlos Menem’s government (1989-99), to the point that we are today able to affirm that neoliberalism has proven itself to be incompatible with social democracy." In 1991, the richest 10% of the Argentine population received 17.8 times more income than the poorest 10%; the richest now receive 28.7 times more income than the poorest. According to Argentina’s National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INDEC), the richest 10% of the population now receives 37.3% of national income, while the poorest 10% receives only 1.3% of the income.

The nation’s economic crisis has become more acute since the political meltdown at the beginning of the year. Between January and April, inflation was 21.1% and it’s predicted the annualized rate will be 70%. In October, 2001, unemployment was 18.3%; in May of this year it was 25%. To make things even worse, inflation and unemployment have skyrocketed in the midst of a continued salary freeze and a violent devaluation of the exchange rate. In January the peso-dollar parity was one to one; today it’s 3.6 pesos to one dollar. According to INDEC director Carlos del Bello, with such a high unemployment rate it will be impossible to turn the social situation around: "Until the end of the 1980s," he says, "poverty was a limited phenomenon, but in the last ten years it has grown to encompass whole strata of the middle class, and what makes it more difficult is that there is a tough nucleus of structural poverty that includes several million people."

Eighteen millon Argentines are now living below the poverty line. In the Federal Capital and Greater Buenos Aires, 53.1% of children younger than 15 live in poverty. Of the area’s 2.8 million children, 1.5 million belong to families who can’t afford minimal necessary levels of food and basic services. A year ago, in this same geographic zone, there were slightly more than 1.1 million children living in poverty. In the last twelve months almost 400 thousand more were added, which means that 971 children fell into poverty each day. In relation to 1991, when there were 650 thousand needy children in this, the country’s most densely populated region, childhood poverty grew by 128%. And of the 1.5 million living in poverty, 607 thousand are classified as "indigent," which means their families don’t make enough to provide them with the number of calories necessary for survival. Sociologist Artemio López has projected the INDEC data to the rest of the country and finds that of the slightly more than 9.8 million Argentine children less than 14 years of age, 58.1% are living below the poverty line and 28% are indigent.

With this record it’s inevitable that childhood malnutrition, already on the upswing in some areas, will continue to increase. There are no nationwide statistics directly concerning malnutrition, though other kinds of figures collected by public hospitals and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) shed light on the matter: A study of neonatal examinations done in the first four months of 2002 in three public hospitals in the Municipality of La Matanza—30 kilometers west of the Federal Capital—showed that of 6,889 newborns, 26.6% showed less-than-normal birth weight or height, evidence of maternal malnutrition caused by lack of protein. The medical team said that in 1991 the records of the same three hospitals showed the same symptoms in only 12% of the infants examined. Of 900 children examined in 2002 in the Primary Care Center of Villa Quintero, 82% showed some sign of nutritional deficiency.

In light of this new reality, the Center for Medical and Clinical Education (CEMIC) did a study of 600 children between six months and five years of age from Buenos Aires homes of various income levels. Sebastian Lipina, coordinator of the interdisciplinary team that did the study, says that the children who came from indigent homes showed striking deficits in intellectual development, learning problems and inability to incorporate knowledge, "elements which added together will make it difficult for them to compete in adult life." Intelligence tests showed only 4% of the indigent children scoring at a normal level. The normal development of a child’s nervous system requires a gram of protein daily per kilo of weight. "We aren’t coming anywhere near to providing this level, even though we have the means to do so," says public health worker Floreal Ferrara. "We are facing a criminal situation," says Ferrara. "We are the richest country in the world in terms of food production, but the Argentine government and its mentors—the IMF, the World Bank, and above all, the U.S. government—are condemning Argentina’s future and the future of its children."

He alludes to UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) statistics that indicate that Argentina has the world’s highest per capita production of food. This year it will produce 70 million tons for a population of 36 million—nearly two tons per person, eight times more than the world average and almost double the level of the United States and the European Union. Argentina is one of the world’s largest producers of high protein red meat and soy. Much of this production, however, is exported rather than consumed at home.

The state has also abandoned its role in education. According to an estimate compiled jointly by school officials and the teachers’ unions, this year the dropout rate will be close to 20% of matriculated students; over the twenty previous years, the rate has fluctuated around an average of 6%. This dramatic jump is easy to explain: International financial institutions demanded that the government dedicate its scarce resources to servicing the foreign debt. The government stopped providing money for school programs and teachers’ salaries. More than half of primary schools closed their lunchrooms, where many children had eaten their only daily meal. At the same time, monetary stipends for low income students were cut. "The public school system received a mortal blow," according to Marta Maffei, head of the Confederation of Education Workers, "The dropout rate reached levels we’d never seen before, because a high percentage of the student body was coming to school in order to eat and to get their small monthly stipend."

Educational psychologist Adriana Puiggrós concurs with the teachers’ union leader: "To overcome the crisis," she says, "the fundamental equation must include the school lunchrooms and the stipend programs." Currently, teaching time is reduced because teachers must spend their time trying to find food for the school lunchrooms, caring for students, and participating in political actions in defense of public education.

In middle schools, the situation is even more serious. The United Nations Fund for Children (UNICEF) reports that in Argentina’s main urban centers, 48.3% of adolescents are leaving school for economic reasons. "Cast out of school and trained in street culture, the chain of exclusion will cause the poor to disappear as social beings," says the UNICEF report.[1] In a single year the dropout rate increased almost 30%. The increase became notable in the middle of last year when, because of the government cutbacks, the schools stopped distributing stipends to poor families. According to UNICEF, in 1999 school enrollment increased due to the incentive provided by the stipends, that year enrollment of young people age 13 to 15 went up 20% and increased 14% among those age 16 to 18. The opposite trend was observed last year when the state broke its commitment to fund the stipends.

UNICEF’s work on this subject also indirectly demonstrated how labor has been degraded in Argentina. In 1999, when students were receiving a 150 peso monthly stipend (then worth US$150) the UN agency found that Argentine families weren’t sending their children out to work as a survival strategy, but were sending their children to school instead: The stipends were worth more than an adolescent could earn in any job, and were paid only when children had a good attendance record. Even now, however, despite the worsening of the crisis and the elimination of the stipends, families aren’t sending their children out to work. "That’s because so many jobs have been eliminated that the adults have to be satisfied with the poorly paid jobs that previously went to young people without any work experience," the report stated.

There are no national statistics concerning university dropout rates, but the University de La Plata found that 30% of its students dropped out this year; students said in a survey that economic concerns caused the dropouts.

The deteriorating economy is also contributing to a rise in crime committed by young people. A Justice Ministry study showed that of the 23 thousand people sent to jail in Argentina in 2001, 77.8% were first-time offenders; of these, 48.4% were young people between the ages of 16 and 24. In 1991, of the nearly 19 thousand people given prison sentences, only 31.2% were first-time offenders and only 14.7% were in the 16-24 age group.[2] David Baigun, a law professor at the University of Buenos Aires, notes that this is the same age group that now has the highest dropout and unemployment rates.

According to Baigun, "these are young people who should be learning or doing productive work, but in the country’s current condition they can’t do either; they’ve been expelled from the system."

The neoliberal decade, with its catastrophic effects on social welfare, has even affected Argentina’s demography, by slowing the population’s growth rate and changing patterns of where people live. Indeed, says sociologist Susana Torrado: "The deterioration of the nation’s overall health, unemployment and the general lack of economic development discouraged population growth." For Torrado, the first quantifiable sign of the Argentine drama came in January when INDEC published the final figures from the 2001 Population Census. The country had just gone through five presidents in thirteen days, and under the circumstances, the news got little attention, but it was striking all the same: The census showed that Argentina had 1.3 million fewer people than had been expected. Instead of the 37.5 million population figure which had been estimated in advance, the census recorded only 36.2 million inhabitants.

The pre-census population estimates were based on hypothetical changes in death, birth and migration rates that turned out to be mistaken in light of Argentina’s crisis. Instead of falling, mortality had increased from 7.8 per thousand in 1991 to 8.4 per thousand in 2001. The years in-between were ones in which the state had abdicated its previous responsibilities for providing health care. That made state policy incompatible with increasing the average life span, especially among the poorer sectors that make use of public hospitals. In 1991 the birth rate was 21.3 per thousand, while in 2001 it had fallen to 18.9 per thousand. While falling birthrates in Latin America are not typically cause for alarm, in this case unemployment and precarious employment were noted by demographers as disincentives to the assumption of the responsibilities of marriage and child raising.

The census also provides two important statistics concerning internal migration. First, as a result of the fall in income levels, there was a shift in population within the Buenos Aires metropolitan area as residents sought cheaper places to live. Upper class neighborhoods lost 18.7% of their population and middle income areas fell 14.07%. The least well-off zones, by contrast, grew 32.98%. This was the case in the area surrounding the capital city, where over the course of the decade 238 new villa miseria slum settlements sprang up.

Second, there was a marked population decline in the south of Argentina, the so-called Patagonian region. The projections had assumed that in the 1990s internal migrants would continue to stream into the region as a result of industrialization schemes aimed at increasing the settlement of a region with a very harsh climate. The end of these programs and increased unemployment connected to the privatization of the oil industry—the Spanish company Repsol alone laid off 52 thousand workers—led to a regional population decline of almost 8%.

Even before the fall of Fernando de la Rúa’s government in December, 2001, the big financial groups had successfully promoted the idea that Argentina’s problems would be solved when an agreement—including a new and even more severe economic adjustment program—was reached with the IMF. Today, despite the fact that many identify the IMF as Argentine society’s "great enemy," many still hold out hope that things will improve under a new agreement. Economist Claudio Lozano refutes this idea: "The problem is the nonredistributive and exclusively assistencialist character of the government’s strategy." The government has agreed to provide subsidies for 1.2 million unemployed heads of families. But the monthly subsidies are only 150 pesos, scarcely US$43, to support a family of four. This is 34 cents a day for each family member. President Duhalde is trying to portray this as an achievement, but with such a sum the only result will be new legions of malnourished and uneducated citizens. Lozano says the government’s policies are "creating material conditions which make the exercise of citizenship useless and diminish democracy itself. To deepen the recession, raise unemployment and reduce salaries further implies the carrying out of a criminal act that is expressed in the loss of human lives and in turning democracy into a hollow shell."

Andrés Gaudin is a Uruguayan journalist who went into exile in Argentina in 1972. He lives in Buenos Aires and writes for Latinamerica Press and Brecha (Montevideo) among others. Translated from Spanish by NACLA.

1. United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF) Argentina, "La incidencia de la crisis en la escuela y en el trabajo infantil,"unpublished report presented April 23, 2002, Buenos Aires.
2. Registro Nacional de Reincidencias, Ministerio de Justicia, Argentina, "Delito y Condena," Buenos Aires, April 2, 2002.

Tags: Argentina, economic crisis, youth, education, poverty, malnutrition, neoliberalism

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.