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ARGENTINA: Child Allowance Restores Families’ Ties with Schools

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Aug 30 2011 (IPS) - Conditional cash transfers to poor families with children in Argentina “have had a very positive impact,” says an enthusiastic Graciela Dulcich, the principal of a primary school in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

“Once the kids are enrolled in school, the responsibility is ours, and if they miss class for more than three days, we have to move heaven and earth to find out what’s going on, and to make them start coming again,” she explained to IPS.

For the past 35 years, Dulcich has worked in public schools in low-income neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the capital, like school number 34, which she currently heads in San Isidro, a Buenos Aires district marked by strong social contrasts.

In late 2009, the centre-left government of Cristina Fernández introduced the Universal Child Allowance (AUH), which now grants 220 pesos (53 dollars) a month for each child under 18, up to a maximum of five, to parents who are unemployed or work in the informal sector of the economy.

In the case of disabled children, the monthly allowance is four times that.

The AUH was later expanded to the children of domestics, pregnant women, and low-earning members of cooperatives.

The cash transfer, which is now received by the families of more than 3.6 million children and adolescents in this South American country of 40 million people, is conditional on school attendance and keeping up-to-date on vaccines and health checkups.

Independent studies show that the AUH has led to a drastic – between 55 and 70 percent – reduction in extreme poverty, as well as a less significant drop in the levels of poverty and inequality.

But the impact has not only been felt by the families who have been helped out of poverty or indigence thanks to the monthly cash payment that tops off the income they are able to make by working. The effects have also been felt in schools, especially at the primary level, where the AUH has led to a big jump in enrolment.

And according to Dulcich, “once the school got the kids to come in, it won them back – in other words, even if they skip school one week out of three, they are in the system, and are followed up on.

“We do all sorts of things to get them to attend class,” from cheering and applauding every day for the ones who show up, to phoning or even visiting the homes of the children who miss class, the principal said.

She explained that the Education Ministry requires monthly reports on attendance.

“If I report to the ministry that there are kids who have dropped out, or that many have repeated the year, they reprimand me and ask for detailed reports. This is the pressure we face, which is why everything possible must be done to make sure the kids come to class,” Dulcich said.

Primary schools can also refer children to psychologists or social workers, and offer the families guidance on medical or dental questions, as well as advice on different problems.

With regard to the families of children who habitually miss class, and “who do not have a culture of regular school attendance,” a bigger effort is made in terms of following up on their situation, Dulcich explained. Many of these families make a living by sorting garbage on the street for sellable recyclable materials like paper and cardboard – they are known as “cartoneros” in Argentina – work that the children often do alongside their parents.

“But for the mothers who never give up, the ones who ask us if they can give the address and phone number of the school as a reference when they go to look for a job, the AUH is highly appreciated,” she said.

These women, she said, “now send their children to school with all the necessary supplies, and they come in to say their child lost his red pencil, for example – an attitude that was unthinkable in the past. The families now feel less marginalised, and they even make regular voluntary payments” to the parents’ association, known as the “cooperadora” in Argentina.

In the country’s public schools, the “cooperadora” collects money from the students’ parents to make necessary repairs and purchase materials, when the school budget falls short.

Challenges in secondary school

But at the secondary level, it has been more difficult to achieve steady attendance by means of the AUH payments. Although the allowance has helped reduce poverty and extreme poverty, which in itself favours a learning environment, the challenges are more complex.

Jessica Malegarie, with the Fundación Cimientos – the Foundation for Equal Educational Opportunities – which works with teenagers, told IPS the AUH “helps but does not solve” problems in secondary school, where drop-out and repetition rates remain high.

The foundation provides a stipend of 185 pesos (45 dollars) a month to 3,050 youngsters throughout the country to help them stay in school. This assistance is not incompatible with the AUH, which is in fact received by the families of half of the foundation’s beneficiaries.

However, the structure of secondary school, where there are different teachers for each subject, who teach in more than one school, means there is a less personalised relationship with each student. This and other factors weaken regular attendance, Malegarie said. Drop-out rates in secondary school are two to three times as high as at the primary level.

Malegarie, the Fundación Cimientos programmes director, said the AUH “has been a very positive thing, because it has cut the rates of poverty and indigence, while putting the question of education on the public agenda, by requiring attendance.”

She also acknowledged that it has led to a rise in enrolment. But she stressed that in order to keep adolescents in school, “a commitment by the youngster and the family must be achieved, and by the school, which must work closely with them.”

Secondary school “was thought up for another kind of student, with different socioeconomic and cultural characteristics” than the ones seen in many areas today, she said, adding that tutoring programmes are needed, and that teachers should spend more time in the schools.

IPS spoke to one woman who is facing this problem: her 15-year-old son wants to drop out of school. His mother, a domestic worker, is worried about losing the monthly AUH payments, but has been unable to convince him to continue going to class.

“I told him that if he doesn’t keep studying, he’ll have to go out and work, but I’m getting nowhere with him,” said the mother, who preferred to remain anonymous.

Parents receive 80 percent of the AUH every month. The remaining 20 percent is retained until the start of the school year in March, when the parent or legal guardian presents the school attendance certificates and vaccination records and receives the accumulated amount.

“That control,” said Dulcich, “is just once a year, but they supervise us every month to see what’s going on with the children who are enrolled.

“That’s why in my view this is without a doubt very positive, not only with respect to the future, but in the present as well,” she added.

“Once the family ‘discovers’ school, which helps them solve a number of problems and provides support, they don’t leave anymore. Because things aren’t like they used to be – the schools now fulfil many social functions,” the principal said.

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