Agosto 24, 2021

What if Public Records Replaced Political Brokers? Argentina and Emergency Household Relief during the Pandemic

Copyright: Salud Buenos Aires.

In March 2020, a revolution swept across Latin America. As COVID-19 spread and preventative measures were implemented, the repercussions for economic and social life were so severe that many households fell into poverty and society’s most vulnerable faced even greater hardship. According to the ECLAC, the social development attained across the region during the first decade of the 21st century was largely dismantled as a result of the pandemic. What did governments do to help the informally employed and the impoverished? How did the measures adopted change the political ties between authorities and popular sectors? In a context of imposed isolation and distancing, did social movements and political brokers prove as important as they had in recent decades?


In Argentina, authorities quickly realized that high levels of informality and poverty required policies designed to provide relief to both formal and informal workers. In this regard, two important measures were approved by presidential decree as part of a complex set of public policies: the Emergency Household Relief (IFE, decree 310/2020) and Assistance for Work and Production (ATP, 332/2020). These were the earliest, most far-reaching and long-lasting policies. In the hardest months of 2020, the IFE benefited nearly nine million people, while the ATP assisted almost 250,000 companies and approximately 2.5 million workers. In three separate payouts over the course of 2020, the IFE provided AR$10,000 to household heads who were freelancers or held informal employment hard hit by the pandemic. For its part, the ATP provided a series of benefits for companies in nine separate payments, including a wage subsidy to help them pay their formal workers.


Given the suspicion surrounding the involvement of intermediaries in public decision-making, the IFE represents a unique experience in terms of its design and organization. Instead of negotiating with local authorities or social organizations, its implementation was entirely centralized. Technical teams of the national government designed the initiative in record time. Applicants enrolled on the platform of the National Social Security Administration (ANSES). According to official data, approximately 2.5 million beneficiaries were already receiving some type of ANSES stipend; an additional 6.5 million people enrolled and were approved. Once payments were authorized, people received them through banks or the post office.


Other actors had only minimal involvement in the IFE. The testimonies gathered across Argentina as part of a collective project I lead are conclusive: the role of state intermediaries was limited to spreading the word, getting potential beneficiaries enrolled, and attempting to resolve the (few) problems people faced. In addition, though to a lesser extent, intermediaries found workarounds for individuals who did not necessarily meet all the requirements to access the benefits. During a critical, uncertain time, social organizations helped persuade its members of the need to sign up, gave access to a computer, or gave assistance in terms of the information required to apply. Those with more connections in organized communities faced the challenges of virtual enrollment better than more isolated individuals. In any case, if the IFE is compared to other welfare programs, the involvement of political brokers and social organizations was greatly diminished and mainly limited to registration.


Did this type of intervention represent a permanent break between political brokers and government? The interest in IFE is precisely that it allows us to home in on our definition of politics. Herein, the focus is on two meanings: the reconfiguration of responsibilities at different levels of government and the mobilization of remote state capacities.


On the one hand, the IFE introduced a particular type of work division among the participants of Argentina’s federalist system. Due to diverse sociodemographic, economic, and political realities, and the different ways the pandemic unfolded across the country, local governments had the knowledge required to closely monitor the crisis and ensure compliance with health measures. At the same time, with the help of national government resources, provincial and municipal policies appear to have concentrated on measures that supplemented the IFE along with diverse initiatives (like government-organized food markets to control the prices of staples in an inflationary context). Naturally, these measures also varied according to the economic and technical capacities of each jurisdiction.


On the other hand, the IFE relied on existing databases available to the authorities, standardized criteria for distribution, and the creation of technology platforms that enabled rapid implementations across the country. Could this then be seen as an autonomous procedure free of bias and friction? The problems, as shall be seen, were not resolved: they shifted. Autonomy in the IFE design and implementation relied on the public records available to decision-makers and public officials. While the public records allowed calculations to be made, the estimates were much lower than the number of beneficiaries eventually approved. The records were plagued by imperfections and further aggravated by a dynamic society. The fact that information was outdated or incomplete, or that data could not be cross-referenced, prevented a more comprehensive, refined program. At the same time, though the interaction with brokers is often a source of tension and conflicts, the operations of the digital platforms and a lack of understanding of their automatic systems also proved problematic.


The pandemic was a laboratory that laid bare many processes and accelerated their development. It revealed novel forms of collaboration at different levels of government and the ability of the presidential branch to rely on the information it gathers and the platforms it manages to reach Argentines of differing socioeconomic levels across the country. The IFE deepened the statistical, legal, and technological rationalization that accompanies greater state intervention. It is possible that the extremely broad criteria for qualifying for the assistance, coupled with the difficulties to adequately segment beneficiaries, led to the IFE’s termination at the end of 2020 after only three payouts even though the pandemic continued. However, it was an intense experience, one that underscores that opportunities and limits of record-based social protection systems in a country with high levels of informality.



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About Mariana Heredia

Mariana Heredia

Mariana Heredia received her undergraduate degree in Sociology from the University of Buenos Aires (1998) and her Master’s (2001) and PhD (2007) from the École des Hautes Études in París. She is a researcher at Argentina’s National Scientific and Technological Research (CONICET), a professor at the Instituto de Altos Estudios Sociales (IDAES/UNSAM) and UBA, and the director of the Master’s in Economic Sociology Program at IDAES. Her research interests focus on the historical sociology of social inequalities and power in Argentina. She is the author of several articles and two books: A quoi sert un économiste (2014) and Cuando los economistas alcanzaron el poder (2015). At present, Ms. Heredia is leading a collective research project on social policies for households and private companies during the COVID-19 pandemic across Argentina.

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