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ARGENTINA: “Myth” of Egalitarian Society Fading Away for Young People

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Dec 16 2009 (IPS) - A study on young people and human development in South America’s Mercosur trade bloc indicates that while in Brazil, the country’s longstanding social inequality is the focus of at least somewhat successful efforts to combat it, in Argentina the vision of an equitable society is fading away.

The study, carried out in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, the four full member countries of Mercosur (the Southern Common Market), was published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) with the support of the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID) and presented in Montevideo last week.

“Argentine society has changed with respect to its past self-image, which was largely a myth,” says the 2009-2010 Mercosur Human Development Report, titled “Innovating for Inclusion: Youth and Human Development”.

The study concludes that in Argentina, in spite of its relatively high level of human development compared to its neighbours, young people between the ages of 15 and 29 suffer from “unfavourable social inclusion,” with precarious jobs, high school drop-out rates, and newer challenges like urban violence and discrimination.

In a section headed “Argentina: the country that is no more and the end of the egalitarian myth,” the report says “the traditional vision of a society ‘with a passion for equality’ is contradicted by increasing inequality, with signs indicating increased distance between classes that are separated by fear, stigma and discrimination.”

This conclusion is based less on quantitative data, which show variable progress and backsliding in recent years, than on qualitative interviews with young people, which show that “the sustained increase in inequality generates fear of the different, and gives rise to conflicts and discrimination in relationships.”

Among upper and middle class youth, the interviews show “a tendency to blame the poor for their situation,” while among low-income sectors there is great concern about “police harassment and violence from private security guards at night clubs.”

“The police are the main source of insecurity for vulnerable and excluded sectors of the population,” the study says.

Attitudes “are not entirely linear,” the researchers say. In upper and middle income sectors there is a certain amount of “modernity” in terms of diversity of sexual orientation, religion and other differences viewed as “non-threatening.” However, social differences do tend to carry “stigma,” they say.

In an interview with IPS, Argentine sociologist Sergio Balardini, a researcher on youth issues at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences and an adviser to the UNDP study, said that “present-day Argentina is a segmented society, in which upward social mobility has stagnated.”

“The myth of the egalitarian society, based on inclusive public education and access to work in a full employment society, is no longer tenable, and young people are well aware of it, having experienced educational services of low quality, difficulties in getting jobs, and the precarious nature of the jobs they do get,” he said.

The downfall of the myth of equality in Argentina contrasts with the advances made in Brazil in recent years. The Mercosur giant has always been affected by structural inequality, but social differences have diminished lately because of social policies in favour of the poorest, within a framework of economic growth which made them possible.

“Brazil is changing,” the report says, praising the fact that now racial and socioeconomic inequality has not only been reduced but is increasingly “challenged and criticised.”

In her introduction to the report, Rebeca Grynspan, UNDP regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, celebrated the finding that young people in Mercosur perceive themselves “as subjects of rights who aspire to empowerment, individually as well as collectively,” and represent “an enormous social capital for the region.”

However, she pointed out that the younger generation are affected by “structural limitations that negatively influence their future expectations.”

Grynspan recommends government action to favour young people’s participation and expand their opportunities, especially in fields like information and communication technology which can be “a useful tool for training and socialisation.”

Argentina is highlighted as having the lowest poverty rate in the Mercosur bloc, along with Uruguay. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) puts it at 21 percent, while the official national figure for 2006 was 26.9 percent, the report says.

But Balardini said that the majority of the population living below the poverty line are children and young people. “If they can’t get a quality education, and also have to take on responsibilities prematurely, there is an inter-generational reproduction of poverty,” he warned.

“The discrimination experienced by young people who are poor is one manifestation of inequality. They live in a consumer society where ‘to be’ is ‘to consume,’ and this abruptly dispossesses them at a time when they need to make great efforts to construct their identity,” the sociologist said.

Since 2007, poverty and inequality levels have increased in Argentina. However, it is the Mercosur country with the highest percentage of students completing university studies: one out of every eight young people aged 25 to 29, according to the study.

But it also found that the population below the age of 30 represents almost 60 percent of the unemployed in Argentina, as well as in Brazil and Uruguay.

The report describes the incorporation into the labour market on particularly disadvantageous terms as “unfavourable inclusion,” a trend that is on the rise. Similarly, it says that in some cases the unemployed youngsters are “the third generation of unemployed, which weakens inter-generational transmission of the culture of work.”

Drop-out rates from secondary schools are also high, the report says. The main reason for this, it says, is the need to work to earn a minimal income.

The UNDP study was completed before the launch of the universal child allowance, a grant of 47 dollars a month for each child under 18 in families where the head of household has no job or is working in the informal sector without social security coverage, instituted this month by the government of President Cristina Fernández.

In Balardini’s view, the allowance “is an important step which in the immediate term will lift many families out of the worst poverty, although the concept of poverty is complex and is not restricted to income,” he said.

“An active and intelligent state, and public policies for children and adolescents, are needed,” the expert said.

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