Editors note: The author was born and raised in Argentina and returns each year to visit.
After getting on the train in Constitucion, Buenos Aires, I make myself comfortable to watch a reality that has not changed. A woman carries a sleeping baby and hands out a piece of paper where we read she needs money to feed her children. Begging has been part of the national landscape for decades, and it is not rare to watch unattended kids distributing stamps and asking for money in return. Giving these kids money has always entailed a moral dilemma because, most likely, they are sent by adults who exploit them. Giving them money means perpetuating this exploitation. These kids are forced to face all the dangers of the street. Many of them escaped from homes where they felt unsafe.
The argentine government takes pride in the Universal Assignment (allowance) per child. According to a bill created in 2009 by President Cristina Kirchner the system ensures that all unemployed women or those making less than the minimum salary get a specific amount of money every month for each kid they have. The only requirements to obtain this allowance are to show proof of vaccinations and school attendance. The adult responsible for the kid gets 270 pesos per month (67 dollars) for each child. In May 2011, five months before Cristina Kirchner’s re-election, the regulations were changed so that women started receiving the allowance when they were twelve weeks pregnant.
This system, however, has many pitfalls.
There is no monitoring to ensure that the money is invested in the children who are supposed to receive the benefit. There are no social workers to ensure that these kids are growing in a safe environment. Cases of neglect and domestic violence may be overlooked. If, for example, a kid is born to parents who are drug-addicts there is no guarantee that the money will be used for the child’s well-being.
Many indigenous communities in Salta and Jujuy have no access to food, so increasing the family income does not fix their nutritional deficiencies. The allowance is unlikely to keep up with the inflation rate, so it is not a feasible plan in the long-term. Bear in mind that the president of Argentina increased her salary one-hundred percent over the last two years.
The system conveys the message that only women who have kids will be assisted by the government, spreading the notion that they must reproduce in order to get help.
Getting a monthly allowance for every child is a short-term solution and may perpetuate the problems that should be eradicated: unemployment, poverty, lack of education and birth control. The more children these families have, the more money they will be able to receive from the government. The benefit is assigned for up to a number of five kids per family.
According to a recent study by the Observatory of Basic Education that surveyed 550 schools and interviewed 571 principals and 951 teachers, there is no positive impact on school attendance. The requirement of attendance did not prevent the principals from signing the paperwork needed to obtain the benefits. In other words, not attending school did not prevent them from getting the allowance. Hence, the Universal Assignment may have helped President Kirchner to win the elections, but it is not having a meaningful effect on the education of these kids. For details on this study, you can visit their website.
Allowances should be attached to attainable responsibilities by those who receive it. There are ways of dealing with poverty that can have long-term effects such as providing training programs and workshops to help people get better job opportunities, guiding parents to find jobs, allocating them to employers after appropriate screenings for drugs and alcohol, providing small loans to start small business and fostering partnerships with organizations and institutions. The main goal of these plans should be to achieve independence and self-sufficiency. If cases of drug addiction are identified, programs of rehabilitation should be strongly encouraged. Classes on birth control and peaceful resolution of conflicts may help people make responsible decisions. By giving away money the government feeds a “culture of begging”. It is necessary to help people help themselves and each other. As the saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”