San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Annual C.R. Poverty Survey Gets Underway

Pollsters this week began a survey that could blunt one of the Arias administration’s proudest selling points.

The annual survey by the National Statistics and Census Institute (INEC) is expected to show an increase in poverty rates when its results are released in late October.

The news would be a blow to President Oscar Arias, who often mentions last year’s survey, which partly credited his administration with the biggest one-year drop in poverty in 13 years.

Conducted since 1976, the survey is one of the most anticipated annual reports. Some 176 pollsters will spend the next month collecting data on income and employment from 14,000 households in 79 of the country’s 81 cantons. INEC, a non-partisan state body, shoulders the survey’s $370,000 cost.

In addition to poverty, this year’s survey will measure access to technology, such as cell phones and computers, and access to state social programs that offer housing, health care and scholarships to poor people.

For the first time in 11 years, the survey will also measure incidence and type of crime, as well as whether victims filed a police report.

According to last year’s survey, the fraction of households living in poverty dropped to 16.7 percent in 2007 from 20.2 percent the previous year. INEC researchers said Arias’ social programs partly contributed to the decrease, and the president was happy to take credit.

“I’m really proud to have been able to do something for the humblest people,” he said then.

But as food and gas prices have surged – food and beverages have become nearly 24 percent more expensive in the past year, the INEC recently reported – this achievement looks increasingly shaky. Economist Pablo Sauma said the new survey will probably show poverty levels back near 20 percent.

Sauma also predicted an increase in unemployment, which dropped to 4.6 percent in 2007, down from 6 percent the previous year.

Arias, expecting a period of “skinny cows,” told the news media that he, too, fears an increase in poverty.

The institute has been criticized in recent years by the news media for the way it measures poverty. A family qualifies as “poor,” according to INEC, if it cannot afford a “basket,” known as the canasta básica, of 45 foods plus basic living expenses such as housing, education and clothing. INEC has not modified its list of necessities since 1988.

Elizabeth Solano, director of the survey, said the list will be changed in 2009 – a promise the institute has been making for years.

Researchers are going slow to make sure the changes are sound, Solano added. A change in the way poverty is measured would be controversial because it would likely affect the survey’s outcome, she said.

“Whether (the results) favor one side or the other, they will have great impact,” Solano said. “We are concerned that (the methodology) be technically sound.”


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