Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Migrants, Single-Parent Households Are the New Face of Russia’s Poor

Paul Goble

Baku, March 12 – Migrants and single-parent households, not pensioners, represent the real face of Russia’s poor today, according to a new study of poverty there, and both the social isolation and passivity of these groups relative to that of retirees explains why the Russian government has done so little to help them.
When Russian leaders and most Moscow and Western commentators speak about the poor, however, they tend to focus on the elderly whose pensions have been devalued so much over the last 15 years, and when they talk about how to alleviate poverty there, they again tend to focus on that group.
But a new multi-year, multi-university qualitative study of poverty there suggests that such views and such recommendations are missing some important changes in the composition of the Russian poor, according to a summary of its conclusion posted online last week (
The project investigated the various ways in which poverty is defined, the factors that cause it and alleviate it, the strategies various groups of the poor adopt to cope with their situation, as well as the chances for success of various governmental and non-governmental programs to address the problem.
Because of its focus, the study did not spent much time looking at global statistics, although its authors suggested that the actual percentage of the poor in Russia is “not less than 30 percent” – or slightly more than twice the 14 percent that the Russian State Statistical Committee reports.
According to this study, poverty can be defined in terms of “the level and quality of income, the characteristics of consumption, the level of exclusion from social networks, self-identification and the assessment of those among whom such people live. And consequently, those who might be rated poor on one measure would not on another.
How the poor see themselves and how others see them is thus often not entirely accurate. Many people who are objectively poor are inclined to say they are not, and many when asked who the poor are often respond “’the pensioners’ even though working families and single mothers more often fall into this ‘risk group.’”
The investigators said there were three reasons for their conclusion on this. First, pensioners were more active in finding ways to cope with their low incomes and, having more time, in defending their interests politically. Single mothers, migrants and the working poor are much less active.
Indeed, one of the scholars involved in this research said, “the [new] poor, young people, and immigrants are invisible social groups,” and consequently, officials design policies in this area with little or no regard to their needs, something that means the kind of poverty they find themselves in reproduces itself from generation to generation.
Second, popular attitudes play a key role. Most Russians still have a positive attitude toward the old whereas their views of the other groups tends to be more negative, with many suggesting that members of these groups are to blame for their plight, something they do not say about the elderly.
And third, the study’s investigators report, there is what they call “the television effect.” There has been a great deal of talk about all the programs the government has come up with for the working poor, and consequently, many Russians find it hard to believe that this group is as bad off as in fact its members feel.
That in turn is compounded by the way in which government officials talk about poverty. The sociologists who conducted this study noted that central government officials are inclined to talk about poverty as a global concept while those further down the power pyramid tend to talk about specific groups.
On the one hand, the former inevitably get more media attention and thus tend to define how the population views the problem, reinforcing the existing view that it is precisely the pensioners who are the most badly off group in post-Soviet Russian society.
And on the other, the lower-level officials are in fact engaged in dealing with specific groups such as invalids, pensioners and the like, less exciting for the media and hence the public but potentially far more significant in actually addressing the real problems of real groups of poor people.
In addition to this core finding, the new study drew three other conclusions, all of which point to additional problems ahead. First, it found that there is every reason to believe that the gap between the rich and poor in Russia will continue to increase for the foreseeable future.
Second, it said, one of Russia’s major incubators of poverty are the so-called “settlements of an urban type,” places that lack either the support systems or infrastructure of villages and cities and thus make it that much more difficult for those living in them to climb out of poverty.
And third, the study found that after Moscow shifted primary responsibility for social financing to the regions, “the problem in the distribution of resources” inside each of them tended to “sharpen,” thus creating new tensions and challenges across the country.
Overly impressed by the amount of money flowing into Moscow’s coffers as a result of rising prices for oil and gas, many officials in Moscow and observers in the West have tended to forget about Russia’s poor or to assume that the rising tide will lift all boats.
But this new study is a reminder of how intractable the problems of poverty are and how its new forms, because of the kind of invisibility that Michael Harrington talked about in the United States almost half a century ago, may prove even more difficult to address and ultimately more of a problem for any society that fails to do so. I

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