Economic Crisis Leaves Many Adrift
'Culture of Not Working' Is Changing Society
By Jon Jeter
Washington Post Foreign Service
BUENOS AIRES -- "What's done is done," Lorena Peralta says to her ex-husband as she sits on a park bench breast-feeding their 18-month-old son.
"No, really," he asks again. "Why couldn't we stay together?"
He always does this to her, she says -- impishly slips the question into their conversation, as if he doesn't know the answer, as if he hasn't asked it a thousand times before and hasn't received the identical answer each and every time.
"You know why," she says to him, sounding at once exasperated and amused. "You drank too much."
"It's true," he says. "But I drank because I could not find work and take care of my family. If I had a job, many things would have been different."
"I know," she says to him. "But what's done is done."
That her four-year marriage to Herbert Robaldo ended badly is no longer Peralta's most pressing concern. She has moved on. What preoccupies this girlish-looking 20-year-old is how she will get through the days and years to come, raising two children on a maid's salary, alone.
"All Herbert ever wants to talk about is when we were married," she says as Robaldo rambles off to chase their other son, 4, through the park's tall grass. "My problem now is that I am a single mother with babies to feed. So many families are breaking up now. It is horrible. This crisis has made us all crazy."
Peralta describes her divorce and her life as a single mother in terms of the economic pressures around her. Much as it did in American inner cities, the loss of relatively good-paying jobs in factories and warehouses here has not only emptied pockets and bank accounts, but has also produced an urban underclass of unmarried mothers, rudderless youths and lives lost to the bottle and overcrowded jails.
"Argentines were connected to each other and to society through their jobs for most of this century," said Virginia Garcia Beaudoux, a sociologist and director of the Center for Public Opinion at the University of Belgrano. "When they lost their jobs, they lost those connections. Their children don't have any road maps for success. There is a feeling of drift and despair in Argentina that is entirely the fallout of our economic crisis."
The number of female-headed households in Argentina has increased from
14.6 percent in 1990 to 27.1 percent last year, according to Argentina's
The number of Argentines age 15 to 22 who are neither working nor in
school has nearly tripled since 1989, and the nation's crime rate has quadrupled
over the same
period. The percentage of babies born to teenage mothers in Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital and home to more than a third of the country's population of 37 million,
has increased from 14 percent in 1990 to 20 percent of all live births last year, according to government statistics.
"We've not only experienced the problems of unemployment," said Orlando
D'Adamo, a sociology professor and pollster at the University of Belgrano.
"But we've been
introduced to the culture of not working. There are a lot of people who are no longer connected to society in the way that Argentines typically have been and the
damage is happening house to house, neighborhood to neighborhood. The quality of our relationships has declined along with our quality of life."
It is a jarring transformation in a country that for most of the 20th
century was safe, prosperous and solidly middle class. The unprecedented
jobless and poverty rates,
following the collapse of local industries in the 1990s, have plunged the country into a crisis that has introduced this overwhelmingly white country to the kind of social
pathogens that have poisoned poor black and Latino ghettos in the United States.
In the concrete shantytowns known as villas miserias or misery villages,
clots of young men gather on street corners in hooded sweatshirts and skullcaps,
bottles of beer and smoking marijuana. Unwed mothers complain that it is difficult to collect child support payments. The jobless gripe that employers discriminate
against job applicants from the slums. Unmarried women are accused by their neighbors of bearing children merely to collect public assistance. And crime has gotten so
out of hand that thousands of women took to the streets on a Friday evening two months ago banging pots and pans in deafening protest.
"You have to remember that until 1990, Argentina had not seen its unemployment
rate rise above 5 percent for nearly 50 years," said Artemio Lopez, polling
Equis, a research firm here. The government said joblessness was just over 16 percent in December, but many economists contend the rate is nearly 20 percent.
"And so when this social structure built on work and family loses one
of its two pillars," Lopez said, "it's not just a job that disappears,
but people's expectations and the
way they have traditionally identified themselves that is rearranged.
"When you talk about the failures of this new global trading system
to benefit countries like Argentina, you cannot just measure it in terms
of gross domestic product," he
added. "You have to talk about what a destabilizing agent it has been for families as well as industries."
What Peralta remembers most about married life is that she was lonely.
When she and Robaldo got married, he was 18, she was 15, and their economic
Robaldo was working off-the-books at a shoe factory, meaning he had
no contract and no benefits. But he bought home $100 a month. Nothing great,
but enough to
keep them afloat until something better came along, Robaldo figured. Nine months into their marriage, the factory closed.
With their son, Juninho, closing in on his first birthday, Peralta had
been working a few hours a week as a maid. When her husband lost his job,
she began working full
time while he searched for work and stayed home with Juninho. "It is very difficult," Robaldo says. "No one wants to hire anyone from the villas."
Robaldo began to drink, and stayed out until the wee hours, climbing into bed smelling of beer and marijuana.
Peralta asked him to take better care of Juninho; he accused her of
bossing him around because she was the family's main breadwinner. She became
pregnant and cut
her hours in half. Robaldo found work as a cartonero, sifting through garbage each night for recyclables he sold for a few pennies per pound. When their younger son,
Maximiliano, turned 4 months old, Peralta returned to work full time.
The family needed, more than ever, her $80 monthly salary. Robaldo's
drinking worsened. "It was like he was the one suffering from postpartum
says. "He sulked." They argued about everything. Nothing was too trivial.
"No man," Robaldo says, "should be staying home like a housewife. It
was demeaning." He came home later and later. Their arguments grew louder,
waking the children
and scaring Peralta. When her mother and sister intervened, Robaldo cursed them. She began to wish that her husband would not come home at all.
"It was like another man had moved into my husband's body," Peralta
says. "When Herbert lost his job and couldn't find another one, it was
like he changed into
someone I didn't know." She asked him to move out; they divorced a year ago. She brings the children to visit him once a week, usually meeting him at a park near
where he now lives with a cousin. He is trying to make a go of selling gym shoes on a street corner.
"I want them to have a man in their life," she says. "It is so bad out
here now. There are drugs and alcohol and so many bad things that boys
can get into. I don't want
that to happen to my boys."
"I think if I can just start to have some income, some real income,
then maybe I can get my family back," Robaldo says as he sits on a park
bench holding a giggling
Juninho upside down. "I love my boys. I still love my wife."
While Robaldo talks, Peralta sits cradling Maximiliano, staring blankly
at the ground. "I don't know, Herbert," she says, without turning to look
at him. "This is a bad time
to be in love."