The gap between rich and poor, once an issue of the landed and the landless, is more complex today. When giant estancias and wheat farms ruled the rural landscape, land meant power, but this is less true in contemporary Argentina’s urbanized society.
More important is the difference between hereditary wealth and a nouveau-riche plutocracy on the one hand, and a declining middle class and struggling working class on the other. Over the past three decades, the gap between rich and poor has increased.
Historically, the disparity between rich and poor has been less extreme than in other Latin American countries, but the 2001–2002 meltdown, with its devastating impact on the middle class, has resurrected the issue. As of late 2008, a study of 31 major metropolitan areas (covering about two-thirds of all Argentines) showed a poverty rate of 15.3 percent, about half what it had been three years earlier, but government interference in the previously nonpartisan official statistics agency makes these figures open to question.
According to World Bank figures from the 2000 calendar year, with the Argentine peso at par with the U.S. dollar, the country’s per capita GDP was US$7,460; in 2002 it fell to US$4,080, but by 2005 it had recovered to almost US$4,700 and by 2008 to US$7,200. In practice, purchasing power was even higher than that would suggest, but 2009 statistics are likely to show at least a slight reversal with the global recession. In any event, there is no doubt the scenario is less encouraging for the lower and middle classes than for the well-to-do. White-collar crimes (fraud and tax evasion) by the rich are also common.
Despite Peronist platitudes about sharing the wealth, more than half a century of dominating the country’s politics has had little success in anything other than minor patronage handouts. According to one survey, Argentina ranks 27th of 134 countries in the maldistribution of wealth—in the same league with Perú, Sri Lanka, and Zimbabwe (for the most part, the Scandinavian social democracies are the world’s most egalitarian states).
The gap between rich and poor has geographical as well as social dimensions. Poverty affects nearly 20 percent of porteños, primarily in the capital’s run-down southern neighborhoods and adjacent suburbs, while the northern barrios and areas beyond them in Buenos Aires Province remain relatively wealthy.