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Poor in Numbers: A Contribution to a Social History of Social Statistics in Contemporary Argentina

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 November 2016


This article examines how poverty came to be identified as the key category of the new social question in Argentina during its post-1983 transition to democracy. It pays special attention to the conformation of an expert group at the Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos (National Institute of Statistics and Censuses, INDEC), which focused on the construction of statistical instruments aimed at describing the social reality of poverty. Through practices of objectification and classification carried out by those experts, poverty was made into a measurable object, at the same time that it was publicly instituted as a political-moral problem and as an object of state action.

Spanish abstract

Este artículo analiza la identificación de la pobreza como la categoría clave de la cuestión social en Argentina después de 1983, durante la transición democrática. Se enfoca en particular en la conformación de un grupo de expertos en el Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos, que se dedicó a la construcción de instrumentos estadísticos con la finalidad de describir la dimensión social de la pobreza. A través de prácticas de objetivación y clasificación realizadas por esos expertos, la pobreza se convirtió en un objeto mensurable, al mismo tiempo que se constituía en un problema político-moral y un objecto de acción estatal.

Portuguese abstract

Este artigo examina o processo de identificação da pobreza como a categoria chave da nova questão social na Argentina no período pós-1983, durante a transição para a democracia. Dispensa-se atenção especial à formação de um grupo de especialistas no Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos que se dedicou ao desenvolvimento de instrumentos estatísticos que visavam descrever a realidade social da pobreza. A partir de práticas de objetivação e classificação levadas a cabo pelos estatísticos, a pobreza foi convertida em algo mensurável e concomitantemente publicamente instuída como um problema político-moral e como um objeito de ação estatal.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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2 Extreme poverty maps made in Chile in 1975 by the Office of National Planning in collaboration with the Institute of Economics of the University of Chile that were based on the approach of unsatisfied basic needs exemplify this interest. Another case is the research on Coplamar in Mexico (1980–82), which gave rise to a standard basket of ‘essential satisfiers’, whose cost established a poverty line and a first map of ‘marginalisation’ based on population census data. Boltvinik, Julio, ‘Medición multidimensional de pobreza. América Latina de precursora a rezagada’, Sociedad & Equidad, 5 (2013), p. 9 Google Scholar. Boltvinik, Julio, ‘Opciones metodológicas para medir la pobreza en México’, Comercio Exterior (2001), p. 870 Google Scholar.

3 Shortly after its elaboration, the methodology introduced by Argentine experts denominated ‘unsatisfied basic needs’ became widely utilised in the region. Following in the footsteps of the INDEC, it was adopted by Venezuela (1990), Uruguay (1988), Ecuador (1989), Peru (1990), and Colombia (1989). Juan Carlos Feres and Xavier Mancero argue that the experience of the INDEC served ‘as a guide for future applications of the method’. Juan Carlos Feres and Xavier Mancero, El método de las necesidades básicas insatisfechas (NBI) y sus aplicaciones en América Latina (Santiago de Chile: CEPAL, 2007), p. 41.

4 We conducted interviews with experts who had worked at the INDEC in the programmes under consideration: Luis Beccaria, Alberto Minujin, María del Carmen Feijóo, Irene Novacovsky, Irene Oiberman, and Pablo Vinocur. In addition, we consulted other relevant specialists in poverty such as Laura Golbert, Eduardo Bustelo, Rubén Lo Vuolo, and Aldo Isuani in order to contrast their points of view with those of the protagonists of the programmes at the INDEC. We also conversed with the national Minister of Health and Social Action at the time, Aldo Neri, and the Secretary of Economic Planning, then Minister of the Economy, Juan V. Sourrouille. Some INDEC career staff who were later associated with the official measurement of poverty, specifically Cynthia Pok and Clyde Trabucchi, also agreed to be interviewed. Finally, we were able to talk with Juan Carlos Feres, officer of the Unit of Social Statistics and Poverty of the ECLAC since 1975, and head of this unit between 2000 and 2012.

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13 For a definition of experts and expertise in relation to the study of the link between technique and politics in Argentina, see Morresi, Sergio and Vommaro, Gabriel (eds.), Saber lo que se hace. Técnica y política en Argentina (Buenos Aires: Prometeo/UNGS, 2012), pp. 13ffGoogle Scholar. Recent research on experts and social policies can be found in Cortés, Rosalía and Kessler, Gabriel, ‘Políticas, ideas y expertos en la cuestión social de la Argentina democrática (1983–2012)’, Revista de Indias, 73: 257 (2013), pp. 239–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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15 The intervention involved the displacement of directors and the manipulation of retail price statistics, which make up the consumer price index (índice de precios al consumidor, IPC). This directly affected the numbers on poverty, measured from the 1990s from the perspective of comparing household incomes with the price of a basic basket updated by the IPC. The intervention of the INDEC, in addition to producing the exodus of much of their technical staff, cast a general blanket of suspicion on public statistics. For an overview of the controversies on the measurement of poverty in Argentina recently, see Soledad Pérez, ‘Controversias en torno a los métodos de medición y a las medidas oficiales de la pobreza en la Argentina reciente’, Perfiles Latinoamericanos, 41 (2013), pp. 95–122.

16 During his election campaign, the Radical candidate stated: ‘And building on this achievement of all, the recovery of the rule of law, the first goal that we have defined in our platform, and within the chapter dealing with economy – not that dealing with welfare, so that we do not get confused – is to combat extreme poverty and misery’ (campaign speech, 30 Sept. 1983, Ferrocarril Oeste Stadium, City of Buenos Aires).

17 Cf. IPA/INDEC, Investigación sobre pobreza en Argentina. Presentación, Buenos Aires: Documentos de trabajo INDEC/IPA, Serie Metodológica, 1 (1987), p. 10.

18 INDEC, La pobreza en Argentina, Buenos Aires: INDEC, Colección Estudios, 1 (1984), p. 7Google Scholar.

19 The ‘social heritage’ of the dictatorship became a subject of public and academic debate. In this regard, see Villarreal, Juan, ‘Los hilos sociales del poder’, in Jozami, Eduardo et al. , Crisis de la dictadura argentina. Política, economía y cambio social (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 1985), pp. 197281 Google Scholar. However, sociologists such as Manuel Mora y Araujo, for example, publicly questioned the interpretation of experts of the INDEC that poverty was caused by the policies of the authoritarian government. Cf. Manuel Mora y Araujo ‘La pobreza en la Argentina y las coaliciones políticas’, La Nación, December 4, 1984, p. 9.

20 In 1990, Beccaria resigned from his post of director due to the budgetary problems that surrounded the organisation of the national census of population and housing, which finally took place in 1991. He became a consultant for social programmes managed by the Ministry of Labour, worked as an expert at SIEMPRO, and was later appointed head of the direction of statistics at ECLAC.

21 Thus, another member of the group Pablo Vinocur recalled: ‘I had a political commitment […] by ideology, by my world view, my interest was focused on the State’ (interview with the authors, 13–14 Oct. 2011). In the same line, another person interviewed reproduced this commitment: ‘I didn't want to work for a private company; I wanted to work for the State. I had to give back to society everything that the public university had given to me’ (interview with Clyde Trabucchi, 20 Oct. 2009).

22 A lawyer by training, Olivera was one of the most active people in the process of the institutionalisation of political economy, after the coup d’état of 1955. In his classes, he trained students in advanced statistical analysis techniques. Before becoming acting director of the Institute for Economic and Social Research at the FCE–UBA, he was head of economic research services at the Argentine Central Bank.

23 Neiburg, Federico and Plotkin, Mariano (eds.), Intelectuales y expertos. La constitución del conocimiento social en la Argentina (Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2004)Google Scholar.

24 Montecinos, Verónica, ‘Los economistas y las élites políticas en América Latina’, Estudios Internacionales, Year 30, 119/120 (July–Dec. 1997), pp. 351–75Google Scholar.

25 Altimir, Oscar, La dimensión de la pobreza (Santiago de Chile: CEPAL, 1979)Google Scholar. For a brief history of research on poverty in Argentina since the 1970s, see Minujin, Alberto and Orsatti, Álvaro, ‘Antecedentes sobre estudios de la pobreza en Argentina’, in Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo, Política social y pobreza en Argentina (Bogotá: PNUD, 1991), pp. 929 Google Scholar.

26 After leaving the INDEC, Vinocur was hired as programme coordinator for the regional office of UNICEF in Buenos Aires. In 2000, he was vice Minister of Social Development in the Alliance government of Fernando de la Rúa.

27 We loosely rely on Dezalay and Garth's definition of international careers as part of ‘cosmopolitan academic strategies in and around the State’, Dezalay, Yves and Garth, Bryant, The Internalization of Palace Wars. Lawyers, Economists and the Contest to Transform Latin American States (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002), pp. 78 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Feres, Juan Carlos and Mancero, Xavier, El método de las necesidades básicas insatisfechas y sus aplicaciones en América Latina (Santiago de Chile: CEPAL, Serie Estudios estadísticos y prospectivos. no. 7, 2001), p. 8Google Scholar. On the methods of calculating poverty, see Boltvinik, Julio, ‘Métodos de medición de la pobreza’, in Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo, Política social y pobreza en Argentina (Bogotá: Proyecto Regional de Superación de la Pobreza/PNUD, 1991), pp. 929 Google Scholar.

29 Schapira, Marie-France Prévôt, ‘Du PAN au plan de justice sociale. Les politiques de lutte contre la pauvreté dans les banlieues de Buenos Aires’, Les Annales de la Recherche Urbaine, 86 (2000), p. 135 Google Scholar.

30 This approach produced a line of absolute poverty from the construction of a basket of goods and services considered essential for physical subsistence depending on the size of the household and the nutritional requirements of its members. Boltvinik, Julio, ‘Peter Townsend y el rumbo de la investigación sobre pobreza en Gran Bretaña’, in PROCESBAC et al., La necesaria reconfiguración de la política social de México (León, Guanajuato, México DF, Guadalajara: Promoción de la Cultura y la Educación Superior del Bajío (PROCESBAC); Universidad Iberoamericana León; Fundación Konrad Adenauer; Universidad de Guadalajara, 2011), pp. 2348 Google Scholar. Townsend, Peter, ‘La conceptualización de la pobreza’, Comercio Exterior, 53: 5 (2003), pp. 445–52Google Scholar.

31 On the approach and the methodological justification for the definition of poverty in NBI terms, see INDEC, La pobreza en Argentina, pp. 9–17, specifically, point 3.

32 Five indicators linked to the living conditions of households were defined: (a) overcrowding, i.e. the existence of more than three persons per room; (b) type of housing, i.e. precariousness; (c) sanitary conditions, whose indicator is the absence of a toilet; (d) school attendance, as measured by the fact that at least one child of school age does not attend school; (e) subsistence of the household, whose indicators are the existence of a single income for four persons or more or the low level of education of the head of the household. The presence of at least one of these conditions defined a household as poor.

33 Duca, Arturo Laguado, La construcción de la cuestión social. El desarrollismo post-peronista (Buenos Aires: Espacio editorial, 2011)Google Scholar.

34 Interview with L. Beccaria 18 June 2008.

35 Altimir, La dimensión de la pobreza, p. 3.

36 We are referring to discussions on the concept of ‘marginalisation’ and ‘marginal mass’ of the 1960s and 1970s in Latin America. The main contributions to this debate are, among others, those of José Nun, Aníbal Quijano and Gino Germani. For a discussion of different approaches on the subject, see Fassin, ‘Exclusion, Underclass, Marginalidad’, pp. 54–60.

37 Since its formulation in the 1970s, the Permanent Survey of Households (Encuesta Permanente de Hogares, EPH) focused on measuring the labour market rather than poverty. From the previous decade, the measurement of phenomena relating to labour was among the statistical interests of the State (employment and unemployment survey). Daniel, Claudia, ‘Cuando las cifras componen lo social. Estado, estadísticas y expertos en la construcción histórica de la cuestión social en Argentina (1913–1983)’, in Morresi, Sergio and Vommaro, Gabriel (eds.), Saber lo que se hace. Técnica y política en Argentina (Buenos Aires: Prometeo/UNGS, 2012), pp. 66ffGoogle Scholar.

38 Boltvinik, Julio, ‘Conceptos y medición de la pobreza. La necesidad de ampliar la mirada’, Papeles de población, vol. 38 (2003), pp. 925 Google Scholar; Davison, Julián Ortiz, Mendoza, Enrique Ortiz and Almagro, Antonio Cárdenas, ‘Revisión del debate sobre la pobreza, orientado al diseño de políticas’, Análisis Económico, 19: 42 (2004), pp. 275–98Google Scholar. Townsend, Peter, ‘A Sociological Approach to the Measurement of Poverty. A Rejoinder to Professor Amartya Sen’, Oxford Economic Papers, New Series, 37: 4 (Dec. 1985), pp. 659–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Sen, Amartya, ‘A Sociological Approach to the Measurement of Poverty: A Reply to Professor Peter Townsend’, Oxford Economic Papers, New Series, 37: 4 (Dec. 1985), pp. 669–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 Boltvinik, Julio, ‘El conocimiento y la lucha contra la pobreza en América Latina’, Comercio Exterior, 42: 5 (1992), pp. 483–9Google Scholar.

40 Pablo Vinocur reinforced the statements of Beccaria: ‘I guess there wasn't a major theoretical debate on poverty in Argentina when we started to utilise poverty data. There wasn't a great conceptual production that would have legitimised these publications […] Neither on the left nor on the right, no one questioned talking of poverty in Argentina’ (interview with the authors, 13–14 Oct. 2011). The mismatch between the conceptual dimension of expert discussions – in particular, concerning the reasons for favouring present consumption over past consumption when measuring – and the practical dimension, namely, the political purposes – can be seen clearly here.

41 Clarín, El fenómeno más profundo de la década, Nov. 18, 1984, p. 16. The same type of confusion can be seen in Clarín, Radiografía de la pobreza, Jan. 13, 1985, pp. 6–10.

42 According to INDEC, 28 per cent of the country's population was living in poverty; the proportion went down to 22 per cent if households were taken into account, but in any case it was significantly higher than the 1979 estimates by Altimir, which gave 8 per cent of the households as living under the poverty line. For the purposes of the public impact, the fact that the figures were not comparable because they were based on different methodologies was overlooked.

43 Clarín, La crisis laboral en Argentina, Jan. 13, 1985, p. 8.

44 Altimir, La dimensión de la pobreza, p. 6.

45 It is in this sense that Merklen speaks of a ‘reverse alchemy’ in referring to the discursive but also conceptual change in the ways of defining the social question, leading from the classic notions related to the world of labour to those of poverty and indigency. This also encompasses a change in the concept of the subjects of the social question, who are now referred to as ‘poor’ instead of ‘workers’, Merklen, Denis, Pobres ciudadanos (Buenos Aires: Gorla, 2005)Google Scholar. However, this social transformation should not be seen as a distortion since, as Topalov demonstrated it, the categories linked to labour status, such as ‘unemployed’, are also products of a social construction that aims to explain new phenomena. Christian Topalov, Naissance du chômeur. Similarly, in the case of Argentina, problems associated with employment still form part of the debates on social issues, even though they had to share spaces and resources with the discussions concerning poverty.

46 Feres and Mancero, El método de las necesidades básicas insatisfechas, p. 41.

47 Boltvinik, ‘Medición multidimensional de pobreza’, p. 9.

48 In this regard, see Acuña, Carlos, Kessler, Gabriel and Repetto, Fabián, Evolución de la política social argentina en la década de los noventa: cambios en su lógica, intencionalidad y en el proceso de hacer la política social (Austin, TX: The University of Texas at Austin, 2002)Google Scholar.

49 IPA/INDEC, Investigación sobre pobreza en Argentina, p. 12.

50 See Cantón, Darío and Jorrat, Raúl, La investigación social, hoy (Buenos Aires: CBC-UBA, 1997)Google Scholar. One of the specific objectives of the IPA, was to study ‘the perception that the poor sectors have of their unmet needs and of the policies addressed to solving them’, IPA/INDEC, Investigación sobre pobreza en Argentina, p. 13. The results of the qualitative study were published by the IPA in 1988 as Working Paper n. 4: ‘¿Y ahora qué? La crisis como ruptura de la lógica cotidiana de los sectores populares’. Sociologist María del Carmen Feijóo edited this work. A university professor and CONICET researcher, she would become a government official in the province of Buenos Aires, Executive Secretary of the National Council for the Coordination of Social Policy and she also worked as a consultant in Argentina and abroad.

51 IPA/INDEC, Investigación sobre pobreza en Argentina, p. 12. The IPA experts measured the impact of the PAN and other food distribution programmes implemented by Alfonsín's government, getting an estimate of the populations effectively reached by the aid.

52 IPA/INDEC, Investigación sobre pobreza en Argentina, p. 8.

53 In the following decade, the SIEMPRO recruited the majority of researchers and members of the IPA that had not been incorporated into the ranks of active opposition to Menem's administration. Among them were Jorge Carpio, Co-Director of the SIEMPRO, and Irene Novacovsky, Director of the SIEMPRO during Menem's administration.

54 Survey of income and expenditure made in 1985 in the greater Buenos Aires area.

55 IPA/INDEC, Sobre la pobreza en Argentina: un análisis de la situación en el Gran Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires: Documentos de trabajo INDEC/IPA, 1989), pp. 26–7Google Scholar.

56 Since then, the EPH has supplied the measurements of the income of households and of individuals; these data, crossed with the prices of goods and services of the basic basket, allowed a regular measurement of poverty according to this methodology. Given this, defining the components of the basic basket (and their prices) has become a fundamental source of tension between the technical rationality of practitioners and the policy needs of the successive governments.

57 IPA/INDEC, Investigación sobre pobreza en Argentina, p. 9.

58 IPA/INDEC, Sobre la pobreza en Argentina, p. 26.

59 IPA/INDEC, Sobre la pobreza en Argentina, pp. 18–19.

60 Alberto Minujin and Pablo Vinocur, ¿Quiénes son los pobres? (Buenos Aires: INDEC/IPA, Documento de trabajo no. 10, 1989).

61 IPA-INDEC, La pobreza urbana en Argentina, p. 13. By then, Katzman, Rubén had produced a document of great impact that was going in the same direction: ‘La heterogeneidad de la pobreza. El caso de Montevideo’, Revista de la CEPAL, 37 (1989), pp. 141–52Google Scholar.

62 Minujin, Alberto (ed.), Cuesta abajo. Los nuevos pobres: efectos de la crisis en la sociedad argentina (Buenos Aires, UNICEF/Losada, 1993)Google Scholar.

63 See Kessler, Gabriel and Di Virgilio, Mercedes, ‘La nueva pobreza urbana: dinámica global, regional y argentina en las últimas dos décadas,Revista de la CEPAL, 95 (2008), pp. 43 Google Scholar.

64 Grondona, Ana, Saber de la pobreza. Discursos y subclases en la Argentina entre 1956–2006 (Buenos Aires, Ediciones del CCC, 2014)Google Scholar.

65 Interview with I. Novacovsky, 14 March 2014.

66 Ibid .

67 Interview with the authors, 26 Oct. 2012.

68 Thus, for example, before December 2001, a front-page headline of Clarín read: ‘The economic situation: the blow to the middle class. Every day, in Argentina there are 2,000 new poor’, 23 Nov. 2001; the following year: ‘A projection of the Institute of Statistics and Censuses: half of Argentines is poor’, 10 May 2002.

69 Sigal, Silvia and Kessler, Gabriel, ‘Miradas sobre la cuestión social en la Argentina democrática (1983–2013)’, Cuestiones de Sociología, 9 (2013), p. 4 Google Scholar.

70 Marie-France Prévôt Schapira, ‘Du PAN au plan de justice sociale’.