Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Rural Poverty a ‘Brake’ on Russia’s Development, Commentator Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 17 – Using international standards, approximately one Russian in four still lives in poverty, but the situation is incomparably worse in rural areas, where incomes are on average only about half those of urban residents and where ever fewer people produce their own food rather than relying on store purchases, a trend that makes this situation even worse.

            Indeed, according to an unsigned commentary today on Agronews.ru, rural poverty remains so bad that it now constitutes “a brake” on Russia’s more general economic development, reducing food production overall, imposing stiff demographic costs, and leading to ever more flight from the countryside (www.agronews.ru/news/detail/116882/).

            The very day this week that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was taking credit for the growth in real incomes in the population over the last year and promising that the country would overcome poverty “by the end of this decade,”  the Russian statistical agency Rosstat published its quarterly report on “the incomes, spending and consumption” of rural Russians.

            The data that report provided, the Agronews.ru commentary says, “testify that the village [in Russia] remains a broad territory of poverty on the map of contemporary Russia, a country which nonetheless occupied a noted place in the world ratings as to the number of billionaires” in its urban population.”

            Per capita incomes in rural Russia, Rosstat said, rose 1700 rubles (55 US dollars) between 2010 and 2011, but “nevertheless, the average per capita earnings of a rural resident were 4,000 rubles less than the country-wide average and 6500 rubles less than an urban resident had.” Indeed, “80 percent of rural residents” had less than the average for Russia as a whole.

            Moreover, the Russian government statistical office said, this situation was in fact worse because of a deepening of “a serious differentiation of the incomes of the rural population.”  The poorest ten percent of rural Russians had earnings of 2634 rubles while the most well-off decile had income of 26,576 rubles or “ten times more.”

            And this situation is further exacerbated, Agronews.ru noted, by the reality that compared with the past, “a major factor of rural well-being – income from work on private gardens” – is with each year losing its importance.” Indeed, at present, such earnings are “extremely modest” and constitute only 907 rubles a month – or about 30 US dollars.

            As has long been true, the statistics show, pay in rural areas “remains the lowest among all times of economic activity” with the possible exception of textile workers whose wages have been depressed by “cheap Chinese mass production.” In 2011, that meant that the pay rural residents received was “only 53 percent” of the urban average.

            Widespread assumptions notwithstanding, the cost of living in rural Russia “is hardly less than it is in the city.” Spending on food for rural families now forms 36 percent of household spending on food products because rural Russians increasingly buy food in stores where prices in reality often are higher for these things than in cities.

            For Russian poverty in rural areas to be “liquidated” by 2020 as Putin has proposed will “require a sharp growth in pay in the village.  That is something officials understand and have even tried to achieve in the past, but “for a long time – and despite changes in agrarian policy – pay in the village remains” where it has been, at about 50 percent of the country-wide average.

            Five years ago, Agronews.ru points out, the World Russian Popular Assembly “noted that poverty represents the main obstacle on the path to the modernization of the country.”  And it expressed “particular concern” about “the serious gap in the level of incomes between the city and the countryside.”

            That is because such income differentials are leading to “the outflow of the remaining agricultural population to the city, intensifying the abandonment of the Russian countryside, and [meaning that] the village leads in terms of the level of unemployment.”  Five years have past since those comments were made, “but there has been very little change.”

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