By Atom Markarian and Anna Saghabalian
The Armenian government approved on Thursday a 30 percent increase in modest monthly benefits paid by it to the socially most vulnerable sections of the country’s population.
The average amount of allowances received by some 139,000 families eligible for government assistance will thus grow from 9,000 to 12,000 drams ($25) a month. The increase stems from the government’s budget for this year that envisages an almost 25 increase in public spending which will largely be channeled into social security, health care and education.
However, the poverty benefits will continue to be well below the official poverty line which is currently set 14,300 drams per person. According to government estimates, about 43 percent of Armenians lived below that line as of last year, down from an almost 50 percent level reported in 2002.
But economists question the credibility of those figures, saying that the poverty threshold is set too low. “The poverty line at the moment is set at a rather low level,” said Brian Kearney, who runs a social security project in Armenia financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Kearney argued that household income surveys show that most Armenians still spend the biggest share of their budget on food and can barely afford basic utilities which he said are expensive even by Western standards. “If people spend most of their income on food it demonstrates the extent of their poverty,” he told RFE/RL.
Kearney also said Armenia’s economic growth has mainly benefited residents of Yerevan and he sees little change in areas outside the capital. Nonetheless, his outlook for the country’s future was highly positive. “I am so optimistic that I want live here for the future,” said the Irishman.
Armenia’s existing social security net was introduced in 2000 in place of a system that had at one point covered as many as 250,000 families officially listed as poor. Many of them were thought to have other undisclosed sources of revenue.