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In Argentine Poverty War, an Uphill Fight

BUENOS AIRES — Tamara Potaz always thought the first important decisions of her young life would come when she had to choose between becoming a violinist, a luthier or a sound engineer.

Her parents had good jobs, the family lived in a large apartment, teenage life in bustling Buenos Aires was fun and Potaz figured she would make up her mind about a career once she was at university. That was then, in 1999.

Four years later, Potaz, now 19, has had to make many hard choices. An unprecedented economic crisis has wiped out Argentina’s middle class, rendering her parents jobless and depressed. Her family moved into her grandparents’ small apartment and, in order to buy a decent dinner, needs to use food coupons provided by a Jewish social-welfare network set up by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

“We tried to make it on our own, but we reached a point where we had to seek some help,” said Potaz, while volunteering at the Bet Hillel synagogue in downtown Buenos Aires, which houses one of the 65 social-service centers created in the past three years that are run by the Joint. “But it’s tough, especially when I see my parents come home and they are sad.”

The Potaz family belongs to what is known here as the “suddenly poor,” a whole swath of the Argentine upper-middle class who were struck by the economic meltdown that has engulfed Argentina during the last three years.

The vast majority of Argentina’s 300,000-strong Jewish community is part of the middle class, which was hammered by last year’s government-imposed freeze on bank accounts. The freeze prevented depositors from converting their savings into dollars even as the peso went into a free fall, resulting in the value of deposits plummeting by a factor of three.

While the economy is now showing some slight improvement, the situation of most Argentinians is still dire and a far cry from the early 1990s, when the country seemed to be headed toward “first world” status.

The American Jewish community has channeled several millions of dollars in emergency funds to Argentina through the Joint during the last three years, providing basic services such as food and medicine, as well as professional advice and training to the masses of newly jobless.

The Joint is currently negotiating next year’s budget for its operations in Argentina with partners such as United Jewish Communities, the roof body for North American Jewish welfare federations. The Joint has requested $16 million for Argentina programs, up from $13.7 million in 2003. Its top officials are hoping to replicate last year’s funding model, with the bulk of the funds — $10 million — coming from the North American federation system, $4 million directly from the Joint’s own fundraising campaigns and the remaining $2 million from funds raised in Argentina.

But the Joint’s executive vice president, Steve Schwager, said that early indications suggested that UJC and its affiliated federations would only provide $5 million, which would mean that the Joint would need to raise some $9 million from foundations, individual donors and rich Argentine expatriates.

“We’re not really happy about that,” he said. “We still need to go from federation to federation in order to try to reach last year’s total of $10 million.”

A special UJC committee is expected to make a final decision about funding the Joint’s Argentina programs in early December.

The UJC could not be reached for comment.

“It is true that the expectations changed and that people believe the situation in Argentina is improving, but there is still a long, long way to go,” said the Joint’s associate director in Argentina, Jorge Schulman. He said that the number of people to whom the Joint is providing financial assistance has remained steady at approximately 36,000, all with incomes below the poverty line, which is about $300 per month for a family of four.

One of those accessing the Joint’s services is Daniel Katz, a 43-year-old father of four who had to shut down his toy business because he could not afford to repay a loan taken out in dollars with his revenues in pesos.

“After the devaluation, the world just collapsed,” said Katz, who comes by the Bet Hillel center every month to pick up a food coupon worth $80 and some money to buy gasoline for his car.

The Joint center run with the Tzedaka organization also paid the back rent he owed for his apartment and helped him to restart his business.

Estela Grenbank, a psychologist hired to take care of the 182 families receiving financial support at the center, said that many are ashamed to be seeking assistance.

“Many of them were donors, and now they are forced to come in and ask for help,” she said.

Still, the Joint is not able to help everyone in need. Because funds are limited, the Joint has adopted strict criteria on who is eligible for financial assistance.

Grenbank said that many people asking for aid were rejected because they earned a little too much, even though their income was still woefully insufficient to lead decent lives.

“There is no flexibility, and sometimes we just wish those people would lie” about their income, she said.

The Joint has also set up a unique national community pharmacy that is delivering medicines to Jews across the country.

The pharmacy is now handing out more than 11,000 medicines to nearly 5,000 beneficiaries per month. In addition to drawing on donations of medicine, the pharmacy purchases generics, buying more expensive brand-name drugs only as a last resort. The medicines are checked, sorted and dispatched by six professionals and some 20 volunteers.

“We tried to legalize it, but there is no legal framework for what we’re doing,” said Bettina Rosental, the director of the pharmacy, which is located in a deserted community center in Buenos Aires. “So the authorities are looking the other way because they know we are doing a good job.”

Although budgetary constraints have forced the Joint to cap the value of disbursements at $40 worth of medicines per family, Rosental said the allotment is sufficient.

Besides providing food and medicine, the Joint is also focusing on getting people back to work through the Ariel Job Center, which provides job training and search assistance, as well as technical and financial support for small businesses.

During the last year, more than 530 people found jobs through the center.

The center also has a small-business department providing assistance in drafting sustainable business plans and extending credit lines that are no longer available from the destitute banking system.

More than 100 new businesses have been created, and several hundred were able to continue operating, thanks to loans from the center, which averaged $3,500 apiece.

“The Jewish community is suffering less than the rest of Argentines, thanks to the help from abroad,” Schulman said. “The help we got from the U.S. is just something remarkable.”

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