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Scrap by Scrap, Argentines Scratch Out a Meager Living

Miguel points to a figure standing in the shadows 30 yards away. "Go get it. Run. I think he has newspapers."

Miguel once worked the sugar cane fields up north, but moved 15 years ago to the city, where he got a job at a flour mill and made some good money. "I've never been afraid of work," he says. "Whatever you got, I'll do it. Just give me a chance."

Miguel Machado, an unemployed factory worker, now searches for trash to sell to recyclers. Helped by five of his children, he might make $12 a night. (Fabricio Di Dio For The Washington Post)

Argentina, Shortchanged: Former World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz explains why the once-prosperous country is in economic meltdown: because it followed the advice of the International Monetary Fund.
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The mill shut down two years ago. A lot of places here shut down. Miguel started plucking through garbage. On a good night, the family can salvage $10, maybe $12 worth of recyclable goods. Four hundred pounds' worth. Better than nothing, but barely.

"This is not the life I wanted," he says.

His goals are simple: to buy a house, take his children to see the ocean, buy them decent clothes. "This is the best I can do for now," he says.

The Informal Sector

About 83 percent of the jobs created in Latin America are in the informal sector, according to the World Bank study. Developing countries have not generated salaried, industrial jobs in the numbers produced by the United States and Western Europe. While advocates of global markets say jobs should be created by opening business and investment to greater competition, some studies on the effects of globalization in the Third World show that jobs and per capita income have declined in recent years.

In Latin America, per capita income increased by 75 percent between 1960 and 1980, but only 7 percent between 1980 and 2000, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. Since 2001, income per person has declined.

Argentina enjoyed periods of soaring growth in the early 1990s, only to end the decade in depression followed by financial collapse. Since then unemployment rates have soared. An economy that only 25 years ago employed nearly three-quarters of its urban workers in the formal public and private sectors has is producing garbage-pickers, street peddlers and shoeshine men.

"The promise the West and financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund always made to these poor countries is, 'Do what we say and you will be rich like us,' " said Richard Freeman, a professor of labor economics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, referring to the catalogue of free-trade and monetary reforms made by countries such as Argentina during the 1990s. "The tragedy is that a lot of them have done just that and they're actually worse off than they were before. It's a crisis of deindustrialization."

A decade of free-market reforms in Argentina ate away at domestic industries unable to compete with an influx of foreign goods. When the government devalued the peso in January 2002, a painful recession was transformed into the worst financial crisis in the country's history. The economy contracted by 16 percent in 2002, according to the International Monetary Fund. The jobless rate surged to an unprecedented 22 percent, and with it, the number of cartoneros. According to government statistics, there were only about 3,000 cartoneros working in Buenos Aires four years ago.

Argentines jokingly refer to the evening swarm of trash-pickers as the night shift. They are the most painful and visible symbol of the disintegration of a country that, compared with its South American neighbors, once had relatively few people living in poverty.

"I cannot walk down a street in Argentina today without having to avoid someone -- a man, a woman or a whole family -- searching through a mountain of garbage," said Juan Conzi, 63, a retired metalworker. "And it breaks my heart every single time."

So many cartoneros converge on Buenos Aires each night that provincial transportation officials this year removed the seats from a fleet of trains and designated them solely for their use. It was dubbed the ghost train, Miguel says, because it is as if the cartoneros "don't exist in this world."

Lessons of Broken Glass

"Jose!" Lucas calls to the doorman, Jose Ojeda, who has just handed him a garbage bag. Lucas is staring intently at the bag as if it's a meteor that fell to Earth.

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