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Scrap by Scrap, Argentines Scratch Out a Meager Living

"Is there glass in here?"

"No, I don't think so," Jose answers, standing in the dim foyer light with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his jean jacket.

Lucas taps the bag with his foot.

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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He does it again and again until he is no longer inspecting for glass but dancing a sort of triumphant samba with a trash bag.

The first thing you learn as a cartonero is that there is sometimes broken glass in garbage bags. The second thing you learn is that you don't want anything to do with the broken glass that is sometimes inside garbage bags. The third thing you learn is the sound of broken glass when you pat, shake or kick the garbage bag before opening it.

"I've cut my hand twice," Lucas says. He is a fireplug of a kid, with long, black hair that constantly gets in his eyes and shoes with holes so big that you can see his toes. He knows all the doormen by name, and argues with them about soccer.

He doesn't really mind the work, he says. He likes being outside, likes being with his brothers and his father, likes the banter with the doormen. Sometimes the waiters at nearby restaurants hand him a plate of pasta or bread while he works.

Since his father lost his job two years ago, things have changed for Lucas.

He used to eat yogurt and cereal for breakfast every morning. Now, if he's lucky, he may have cereal, and often dry at that. No milk.

For dinner, when things are really tight, his parents have only mate -- traditional Argentine herb tea -- sipping it slowly while the children finish what's left of the food.

His parents argue more now, he says.

'If We Do It, We Eat'

The Machados work six nights a week, five hours each night, rain or shine. They divide 20 buildings among them. Miguel takes eight, the biggest and most affluent ones that produce the most volume. Nothing stirs so much joy in him as when he stumbles on a stack of newspapers, which sell for the equivalent of nearly 8 cents per pound, or maybe an old lamp that he can sell to a second-hand dealer for 75 cents.

"Their garbage," he says. "Our blessing."

The children -- Lucas, Jonathan, Mario, Romina and Maria -- split the 12 other buildings.

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