'Zero poverty' promise a distant goal for Argentina

Norma Colque threw open the rusting metal-grill door at her soup kitchen and dozens of hungry children waving plastic containers rushed past their parents to the head of the line.

"There's food for everyone. Don't worry," Colque said as she dumped ravioli into the containers that the families would carry back to their ramshackle brick homes in the Villa 31 shantytown of Argentina's capital.


In this Oct. 13, 2016 photo, people line up outside Norma Colque's home to fill their containers with free food to take home to their families, outside the soup kitchen in the Villa 31 neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Colque, who gets food from the state to serve about 200 a day, says that in recent months, she has had to stretch the pasta and stew because twice as many people are lining up for food. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

In this Oct. 13, 2016, children gather for free food given out by Norma Colque at her soup kitchen in the Villa 31 neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. "There's food for everyone. Don't worry," Colque said as she dumped ravioli into the containers that the families would carry back to their homes. But Colque worries that may not be true for long. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)


But Colque worried that may not be true for long. The government has been sending her food meant to serve about 200 people a day, but she said that in recent months she has had to stretch the steamy pots of pasta and stew because twice that number are lining up for food.

"The families of these kids have been losing their jobs," she said, and they can no longer afford basic goods.

President Mauricio Macri's market-friendly reforms have been praised by international investors, who say they lay the groundwork for growth. But so far, they have brought only pain to the country's poor.

Since taking office in December, he has laid off tens of thousands of state workers and tried to cut energy subsidies, sending utility bills and bus fares soaring. Macri dropped the previous government's foreign exchange controls, leading to a sharp devaluation of the peso. The already high annual inflation rate of 30 percent has jumped to 40 percent.

As he campaigned last year, Macri often said his goal was to reach "zero poverty" by the end of his term in 2019.


In this Oct. 13, 2016 photo, pasta cooks at a soup kitchen run from Norma Colque's home in the Villa 31 neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. "The families of these kids have been losing their jobs, and they can no longer afford basic goods," Colque said of the children who come to her soup kitchen. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)


But with the economy expected to shrink 1.5 percent this year, Macri now concedes his poverty goal isn't possible, and discontent is growing.

"Macri broke his zero poverty promise," said Miriam Cruz. Since her husband lost his job four months ago, she has been grilling chorizos in Villa 31 as the only breadwinner in her family of four.

The family lives below the 12,600 peso-a-month ($830) poverty line and Cruz's daughters, aged 7 and 10, line up every night outside the soup kitchen because they can no longer afford to eat dinner.


In this Oct. 13, 2016 photo, Miriam Cruz, center, cooks chorizos for meat sandwiches called "choripanes" in the Villa 3 neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Since her husband lost his job four months ago, Cruz has been the only breadwinner in her family of four, and her two daughters line up every night outside the soup kitchen because they can no longer afford dinner. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this Oct. 13, 2016, women line up for a free dinner to take home to their families, from Norma Colque's soup kitchen in the Villa 31 neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. With the economy expected to shrink by 1.5 percent this year, President Mauricio Macri now admits his poverty goal isn't possible, and discontent is growing. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this Oct. 13, 2016 photo, girls rollerblade past what's left of cars parked in the Villa 31 neighborhood as boys play soccer in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The government says more than 32 percent of Argentines live in poverty. That's up from 29 percent in the 10 months since President Mauricio Macri took office, according to a study by the Catholic University of Argentina. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)


"The prices at supermarkets have soared and there are no jobs," Cruz said as the smoke of the sausages billowed from the grill on a street lined with a tangled maze of electric wires, just blocks from the ritzy cafes of one of the wealthiest districts of Buenos Aires.

Such contrasts persist across the country of 41 million people. The government says more than 32 percent of Argentines live in poverty, unable to afford a basic basket of goods. That is up from 29 percent in the 10 months since Macri took office, according to a study by the Catholic University of Argentina.

Many of the poor live in slums known as "Misery Villages," where they often lack access to transportation, running water or sewage. Argentina's northern regions have chronically high rates of child malnutrition, even though the country remains a top global grain supplier.


This Oct. 4, 2016 photo shows the Villa 31 neighborhood, backdropped by downtown, as well as middle class apartments and office buildings in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Many of the country's poor live in the slums known as "Misery Villages," where they often lack access to transportation, running water or sewage. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this Oct. 13, 2016, kids play soccer in the Villa 31 neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. President Mauricio Macri's market-friendly reforms have been praised by international investors, who say they lay the groundwork for growth. But so far, they've brought only pain to the country's poor. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this Oct. 13, 2016 photo, a girl looks over her shoulder as she does her homework in the Villa 31 neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The government says more than 32 percent of Argentines live in poverty, unable to afford a basic basket of goods. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)


"In the past nine months, about 1.5 million people have joined the ranks of the poor," said Lucila de Ponti, an opposition lawmaker leading the fight for a stimulus bill meant to create 1 million jobs. "This has to do with the economic policies adopted and how difficult it has become for lower income sectors to access a basic basket of goods."

The leftist governments that took power in 2003 focused on rescuing Argentina from a devastating 2001 economic crisis that left one of every five Argentines out of work and with growing hunger.

President Cristina Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, kept prices low for things like bread, bus rides and energy prices, and they distributed handouts for the poor.

But their free-spending policies led to soaring inflation, limits on exports and currency controls that created a black market for dollars. Few economists believed the economic statistics released by Fernandez's government, and it eventually stopped publishing poverty figures altogether — though Fernandez's Cabinet chief boasted that Argentina had fewer poor people than Germany.


In this Oct. 5, 2016 photo, Maria Susana Silveira, 55, and Jorge Fernandez, 46, who live in the street as a team, rest outside Banco Nacion with their dog Toto, across the street from La Casa Rosada presidential house in Buenos Aires, Argentina. "In the past nine months, about 1.5 million people have joined the ranks of the poor," said Lucila de Ponti, an opposition lawmaker leading the fight for a stimulus bill meant to create 1 million jobs. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this Oct. 3, 2016 photo, a homeless man sleeps on top of his belongings on the sidewalk, early in the morning in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The president of the World Bank recently praised President Mauricio Macri's efforts at providing clear data as a crucial step to reduce poverty. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

This Oct. 5, 2016 photo shows a mural titled "Hunger Games" by artist El Marian, featuring a starving boy huddling next to cattle eating grain in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The mural was an idea from animal rights group "Voicot" and aims to call attention to Argentina being one of the world's top grain producers, and that most of it is used to feed livestock. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)


Macri has focused on attracting foreign investors, cutting government spending and ending economic distortions. He also vows to release credible economic data.

"It's obvious that accomplishing zero poverty in four years is not possible," Macri said when he released the poverty figures in late September. "But we'll no longer disrespect people telling them that there's less poverty in Argentina than in Germany."

The president of the World Bank recently praised Macri's efforts at providing clear data as a crucial step to reduce poverty.

"The poverty rate was both surprising and disturbing," Jim Yong Kim said. "But, again, I think the positive to take out of this is that Argentina has recommitted to providing accurate data in a transparent way."


In this Oct. 5, 2016 photo, Ana Paz holds a sign that reads in Spanish "We don't want to be poorer" as she protests outside Congress, near a soup kitchen in Buenos Aires, Argentina. President Mauricio Macri's market-friendly reforms have been praised by international investors, who say they lay the groundwork for growth. But so far, they've brought only pain to the country's poor. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this Oct. 5, 2016 photo, Alberto Cejas, who said he became homeless three years ago, prepares a place to sleep on a bed of cardboard outside the Senate Library in Buenos Aires, Argentina. As President Mauricio Macri campaigned last year, he often said his goal was to reach "zero poverty" by the end of his term in 2019. But when he released the poverty figures in late September, he said it's obvious it won't be possible. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this Oct. 4, 2016 photo, women walk by a man sleeping on the sidewalk in Buenos Aires, Argentina. As President Mauricio Macri campaigned last year, he often said his goal was to reach "zero poverty" by the end of his term in 2019. But when he released the poverty figures in late September, he said it's obvious it won't be possible. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)


Many economists are urging Macri to continue his reforms, even if they are painful for now.

"There are less jobs because the economy is in recession and there's more inflation," said Matias Carugati, an economist at the Management & Fit consultancy. He said jobs should increase as the economy improves. "But it may take a while ... the problem is that what might be good in the long term is hurtful in the short range."

Many aren't willing to wait.

"This government is as responsible for this situation as the previous one. If they keep using the same medicine to heal the patient, they'll starve it to death," Luciano Tarduil said as he handed out bowls of stew at a soup kitchen in front of Congress.

"Argentina is a top food producer. It's a crime that our children are dying of hunger."


In this Oct. 5, 2016 photo, a homeless man drinks tea, given to him by a soup kitchen volunteer, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The governments that took power since 2003 focused on rescuing Argentina from a devastating 2001 economic crisis that left one of every five Argentines out of work while some reported going hungry. Many economists are urging current President Mauricio Macri to continue his reforms, even if they are painful for now. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this Oct. 5, 2016 photo, a homeless man eats free dinner at a soup kitchen set up on the sidewalk outside Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Organizers set up their soup kitchen outside the legislature to make as statement to the government about poverty in the city. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)


Text from AP news story, Macri's 'zero poverty' promise a distant goal for Argentina, by Luis Andres Henao and Almudena Calatrava.

Associated Press video journalist Paul Byrne contributed to this report.

Photos by Natacha Pisarenko

See these photos on APImages

Follow AP photographers on Twitter

Written content on this site is not created by the editorial department of AP, unless otherwise noted.