By Atom Markarian
The Armenian government claimed on Tuesday a major decrease in widespread poverty in the country, saying that benefits of economic growth are finally beginning to trickle down to the socially vulnerable strata of the population.
According to a senior official from the National Statistical Service, preliminary results of a household income survey conducted by the government agency show that the proportion of Armenians living below the official poverty line stood at 42.9 percent at the end of last year. The poverty rate reported by the government a year earlier was 49.7 percent.
“In 2003 poverty eased considerably,” the official, Diana Martirosova, told RFE/RL. “The improvement had previously been much slower.”
The government’s poverty reduction strategy unveiled in 2003 envisaged to bring the poverty rate down to 46 percent by the end of last year.
Martirosova attributed the faster-than-expected improvement found by the survey to the robust growth of the Armenian economy which expanded by 13.9 percent in 2003 and 9.2 percent in the first half of this year. “The economy has been dynamically developing for several consecutive years. That is what seems to have led to the long-awaited decrease in poverty,” she said.
The Statistical Service estimates that the aggregate incomes of the population rose by 36 percent in the course of 2003.
The official per-capita poverty threshold is set at 12,260 drams ($24) a month. That means a four-member family with a monthly income worth $100 is not considered poor by the government -- a highly questionable judgment given the cost of life in Armenia.
Some economists therefore believe that the real extent of poverty is higher. They also point to government figures showing that at least 70 percent of Armenians live on a staple diet of potatoes, bread and other cereal foodstuffs.
In another indication of the persisting socioeconomic hardship, Martirosova said that the survey conducted among 6,720 households across the country also found that a typical Armenian family spends two thirds of its income on food. She said the average monthly expenditures by a single household have increased 16 percent to 58,000 drams ($112) over the past year.