Recession pulls children out of Argentina's classrooms

This week, UNICEF is pitching a debt-swap plan aimed at keeping more kids from entering the workforce.

It's 7 p.m. on a Friday in the middle-class Buenos Aires neighborhood of Palermo, and the cafes are filling up with people just starting their weekend.

But sitting on the sidewalk nearby, rummaging through a large garbage bag, 14-year-old Theo is topping off a full day at school with still more work. Theo is one of the city's army of cartoneros, people who sort through bags of trash looking for recyclable paper that they can sell to factories. His daily take for up to eight hours of labor: $2 to $3.

Throughout Argentina, a country of 36 million people, 1.5 million children are working - six times the number of just eight years ago, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and Argentina's Ministry of Education.

Argentina historically has led South America in school-enrollment rates and still has the top-ranked education systemon the continent, according to the United Nations Development Program. But that achievement is at risk. Five years of recession have left 1 in 5 Argentines out of work and 60 percent of the population living in poverty. To help their families survive, children like Theo have been driven into the workforce in unprecedented numbers.

Some organizations are reporting that children who are forced to work are falling behind in class, and more and more children are dropping out altogether. UNICEF, which has begun to address the growing problem, says that unless the trend is stopped, this generation will be restricted to the lowest paying jobs, leaving them trapped in a cycle of poverty.

Already, UNICEF estimates that 40 percent of Argentine children who work end up abandoning school. Anyone listening to Theo will understand why.

His day starts with school at 8 a.m. His family wants him to attend in part because the government ensures he receives a hot meal there. Classes finish at 2 p.m., but instead of homework or playing football with friends, Theo then catches one of several special trains provided by the train companies to carry cartoneros from the slum on the edge of Greater Buenos Aires into the center of town.

"Then I spend the evening collecting rubbish, which we drop off at the recycler before catching a train back home after 10 p.m.," he says. "It makes it hard to concentrate the next day at school, as I'm always worn out."

Argentina's crisis has resulted in a plethora of social programs, coordinated by UNICEF and various government ministries, which are designed to keep children in school and out of work. The programs seek to provide aid directly to families most in need. Assistance for parents is frequently dependent on their children continuing to attend school.

But according to Jorge Rivera, UNICEF's representative in Argentina, these programs are not working. "Money is arriving late, and those people who need help the most are receiving nothing at all," he says.

UNICEF is now reviewing the whole assistance process. It wants to link the various programs into one well-monitored national package that ensures timely delivery of assistance. But to do so, it will need more cash at a time when Argentina's government cannot even pay its debts.

This week, UNICEF will start drumming up support for its Argentine debt-swap plan. Its idea is for Argentina's government to increase spending on education with the extra investment being written off by foreign creditors from the country's debt mountain. UNICEF is meeting with the local hierarchy of the Catholic church and the heads of the country's main media organization in an effort to build a national movement in favor of the plan. Their strategy is to convince the government of its merits and then have the government convince foreign creditors.

"We believe the government owes more to children than to the foreign creditors," says Mr. Rivera. "The main debt is a social debt to children, rather than financial debt."

UNICEF would seem to have an ally in President Nestor Kirchner, elected a month ago. He told Argentina's Congress during his inauguration speech: "We cannot pay the debt at the cost of sentencing Argentines to hunger and exclusion." He warned foreign creditors, "They will only be paid if Argentina is doing well."

Despite similar swaps taking place in Africa, the UNICEF plan is likely to receive a cool reception from international lenders. Argentina has been treated as a financial pariah since it defaulted on its $142 billion debt in December 2001, and has been cut off from raising new cash in international money markets.

Even if UNICEF's plan succeeds, aid workers say any social program, no matter how successful, will still be vulnerable to the apathy caused by long-term joblessness.

When asked what he wants to do when he leaves school, Theo laughs. "There are no jobs where I live. This," he says, pointing to his cart full of cardboard boxes, "is the only way to make money."

Poorer Argentine children do not see school as a means to a job, according to Sheila Mullan, an Irish Dominican nun and aid worker in a slum on the edge of Greater Buenos Aires, a rusting urban sprawl of 11 million people.

"The kids say 'why bother' when there is no work for them when they leave school," says Sister Mullan. "More and more of them drop out of school early and drinking, drugs, and teenage pregnancies are all on the rise."

Mullan also notes that along with the scarcity of jobs, the system of government handouts, designed to avoid hunger, is fueling apathy toward education among the young who see their parents receiving cash despite being unemployed.

"This is a generation of children at risk of being lost," says Emma Galtieri, a sociologist who lectures on poverty at Belgrano University in Buenos Aires. "Lost in the sense of not being able to integrate fully in society. If we do not attend to the problem immediately, starting today, we will lose them."

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