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Despite a strong economic recovery since 2003 and various government efforts at social inclusion, many Argentines remain working in the informal sector, impoverished, or unemployed. Implemented in 2009, the Asignación Universal por Hijo (AUH), a conditional cash transfer programme tied to children’s school attendance and vaccination, has reduced poverty and increased class attendance around the country, according to government and independent studies.
Closely mimicking successful programmes in Brazil and Chile, the policy entails a monthly payment of up to $180 per child of unemployed and informal workers. Eighty percent of the subsidy is paid out automatically; the remaining 20% is issued when parents present valid vaccine documentation for children aged four and under, or proof of school attendance starting at the age of five. The measure includes a $720 monthly subsidy for children with disabilities.
The National Social Security Administration (ANSES), the organisation responsible for administering the programme, has noted its mitigating effects on poverty.
“The Asignacion Universal por Hijo has contributed significantly to the drop in poverty and indigence in Argentina,” said Diego Bossio, executive director of ANSES. Bossio backed his claims by citing independent studies and statistics from INDEC, the national statistics bureau, that say poverty in Argentina has dropped significantly since the programme’s implementation.
But INDEC in recent years has been accused of manipulating inflation statistics, which directly affects its poverty measurements.
A study by researchers Leonardo Gasparini and Guillermo Cruces at the Universidad de la Plata reinforces the government’s claims. Outlining Argentina’s need for a “massive cash transfer programme as an axis for social policy, providing relief for the most immediate economic needs of the population”, the report calls the AUH the “most transcendent social policy decision in a long time”.
Extreme poverty is down to 2.8% from 6.9%, and child poverty dropped to 3.7% from 12%, according to the report.
Investigators at the National Council of Scientific and Technical Investigation (CONICET) claim that the AUH has reduced indigence by up to 70%, and poverty by 13-32%. A report issued by the Council says that the AUH is the “most successful social policy measure of the last 50 years, especially for its impact on indigence and extreme inequality between rich and poor”.
Gains in School Attendance
The programme has also boosted school attendance, according to official data. The Ministry of Education, in a survey of 676 of the nation’s schools, found that 51% reported an increase in student inscription since the programme’s inception until May 2010. The average increase in attendance was 15%, and a majority of school directors credit the AUH for the gains.
But its apparent success in promoting school attendance has laid bare deep problems in Argentina’s education infrastructure, as many schools are ill-equipped to absorb the uptick in primary and secondary school enrolment, particularly in Buenos Aires province.
“The right to the AUH should imply an inclusive space, as such, the conditions to learn and teach must be in agreement with the needs of our children and teachers,” said Mirta Petrocini, president of the Federation of Buenos Aires Educators (FEB).
“The growing demand in matriculation is not reflected in a bigger budget or efficient management in order to resolve the daily problems seen in provincial schools.”
In a visit to schools in greater Buenos Aires, the FEB found hallways being used as administrative space to make room for classrooms, halted construction projects due to lack of funds, unsanitary bathrooms, leaky ceilings, deficient libraries, and a shortage of table and chairs.
A More Inclusive Social Policy, with Caveats
After the crisis of 2001-02, Argentina’s sustained economic recovery from 2003-8 led to employment recuperation and lifted many out of destitution. Although social programmes like ‘Jefes y Jefas de Hogar Desocupados’ and ‘Plan Familias’ helped certain sectors and alleviated situations of emergency, they didn’t respond to the magnitude of Argentina’s persistent poverty. Politicians, academics, and NGOs began pushing for a more inclusive distributive policy such as the AUH.
The AUH was passed by presidential decree in October 2009 and expanded coverage to children of informal and unemployed workers. At the time, the decree was criticized by opposition legislators for bypassing the parliamentary process and disallowing debate on alternative proposals.
Elisa Carrió, founder of the political party Coalición Cívica, argued that the measure isn’t redistributive because it “takes money from poor retirees and gives it to poor children” by using the pension system to pay the subsidies. Other legislators claimed the measure “foments clientelism” – exchanging favours for votes – by targeting primarily the middle and lower classes, the traditional base of the Peronist party.
In a column in La Nación, the economist Roberto Cachanosky echoed the critiques of many economists who partly blame the AUH for causing inflation in Argentina by creating consumer demand and putting upward pressure on prices. He called inflation “one of the most perverse taxes” because it disproportionately affects low-income workers, and said the recipients of the AUH have lost “a good part of their purchasing power” because of inflation – by some measures – of up to 22% annually.
These inflation worries are perhaps what lead President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, again by decree, to boost the monthly subsidy. In October, the payment will increase to $220 pesos per child, and $880 for children with disabilities, a gain of 22.2%.
A 2010 report from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Argentina also lauds the programme but says there’s more work to be done.
Calling the AUH a “big advance” in terms of fortifying the economic capacity of families to send their kids to school, the report goes on to say that these types of policies are “diluted” if not accompanied by a “more profound transformation of economic, social, and educational policy”.
Lead image: President Cristina Kirchner at an event to assign the first cards for Asignación Universa por Hijo in Mar del Plata by Presidencia de la Nacion Argentina.