What is poverty for Russians?

According to the statistics, in Vladimir Putin's first presidential term the number of Russians living below the poverty line fell from 35% to 23.3%. The fight against poverty has now been declared a state priority. Today a great deal is said and written about the post-Soviet rich and poor. However, there is no common opinion in Russian society about what poverty is.

In 2003, the Complex Social Studies Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences conducted a nationwide sociological survey called "The Rich and the Poor in Modern Russia", which involved 2,118 people. It was designed to study the causes of poverty and what the term meant for Russians, as well as their attitude towards it.

Paradoxically, for 90% of Russians poverty is a living standard just a little lower than their own. In other words, they take the view that the poverty threshold depends first of all on their incomes. Most Russians believe that the threshold lies a little above 1,500 roubles per family member a month ($1 equals 28.5 roubles).

As signs of poverty Russians point to a poor diet, a lack of clothing and footwear, bad living conditions (fewer than 10 sq m of living space per person, no private apartment, house or land plot), and the inability to pay for medical or educational services. In sociological terms, people living in these conditions are the genuinely poor in modern Russia and they account for about one quarter of the country's population.

The institute also conducted a European-wide poll, Eurobarometer 40, which covered France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece and other countries. It showed a large gap between perception of poverty in Russia and in western Europe. In the latter, only 38% of the respondents said there were poor people in their region, while 34.3% believed that in their city or region there were no people who could be considered poor or who risked becoming poor in the near future.

In Russia the question "Are there people in your city or region who in recent years have found themselves below the poverty line?" received the following answers: "Yes, and there are many" - 77%, "Yes, but not that many" - 18.5%, "Yes, but only few" - 4.5%.

Most Russians believe that factors that caused poverty are arrears for wages and pensions (46.8%), long-term unemployment (41.2%), meager social benefits (37.1%), illness or disablement (36.8%). Those polled put alcohol and drug addiction in fifth place (35%). The poll allowed up to five answers, so the total of the answers exceeds 100%.

As far as the psychological reasons for poverty are concerned, then Russians name laziness, passivity and a lack of practicality. 26.8% of Russians believe that these qualities are the reason for their friends and acquaintances being in a penurious position.

Europeans, however, believe that the root of the evil lies in the person himself, in his own shortcomings, first of all, alcohol and drug addiction (57.1%).

Judging by the acquired data, Russians have a fairly well grounded perception of the causes of poverty.

Consequently, it is evident that the reasons for poverty are different, which means that it cannot be counteracted by increasing wages, pensions and subsidies alone. When drawing up the principles of the state social policy, it is important to think about non-financial ways of assistance, especially for families with children.

The institute's research shows that the prevailing attitudes in Russian society towards people who have grown poor during the economic reform process are compassion (51.3%) and pity (17.4%). In the mass consciousnesses of the Russian people, the poor are mainly kind, patient, conscientious, law-abiding and hard-working people.

Doctor of sociological sciences Natalia Tikhonova, deputy director of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Complex Social Studies Institute.

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