“I really don’t know how many poor people there are in Argentina”.
The phrase, a normal-enough sentiment, could have fallen on deaf ears. Except the man speaking was Economy Minister Axel Kicillof, which begs the question: How is it that the man in charge of the economy doesn’t know the poverty rate?
Is he actually that uninformed, was the statement ironic, or is it just a strategy to evade a perennially sensitive topic? Before we get into motives, there’s something beneath the surface that could lead to an uncomfortable fact: his statement might be true. And here’s why.
First of all, since Kicillof became Economy Minister, we don’t have an official estimate as to the number of poor people in Argentina. On January 2014, the INDEC (the Institute of Statistics and Census) changed a fundamental metric: the IPC consumer price index. This had managed to keep track of the poverty rate in Argentina since 1993, and the reason for nixing it in favor of a new model was that the old one only considered the greater Buenos Aires region.
This is why the goverment created the so called IPC-NU, which was created to correct the “methodological deficiencies” of the IPC. Or at least this was the official explanation.
Unofficially, critics pointed out that it was a way to reset the numbers and have a clean slate (as the INDEC’s credibility was already being questioned by the opposition and the international community anyway).
Although the new measure seems to be better than the old one, there’s one fundamental hitch in determining how good it is: The indicators can’t be compared. So if the new one said, for instance, that the rate is three percent, we have nothing to compare that number to.
This is why it is very likely that Kicillof’s statement might be true, but it’s true because of one of the Goverment’s most criticized aspects: the remarkably strange and sometimes patently false numbers they’ve disseminated over the years regarding poverty, inflation and a host of other economic indicators. Even INDEC workers themselves have held several protests asking former ministers to clean things up in the past.
So if the official indicators aren’t to be trusted, what was Kicillof and the journalist who interviewed him talking about (assuming he wasn’t trashing his own statistics)? In order to sustain that Argentina has fewer poor people during the Kirchnerite administrations, Kicillof brought up the many social policies undertaken by Cristina and Néstor Kirchner, such as the Universal Child Allowance, the “Progresar” plan (an income subsidy to young students) to support his statements. The journalist, on the other hand, was citing private studies.
The truth is that the government (and society in general) doesn’t have a trustworthy indicator of the poverty rate that currently exists in Argentina. In order to justify his remarks, Kicillof said that poverty indicators are “fundamentally stigmatizing”.
An surprisingly odd response for a supposedly numbers-minded minister, that will now be repeated ad nauseam in the media as a very inconvenient soundbite.