I originally wrote this piece for Tehran Bureau which published it on March 4, 2011.
44.5% to 55% of Iran's urban population lives under the poverty line, according to a new report entitled 'Measurement and Economic Analysis of Urban Poverty.'
The paper was presented by three senior government researchers at a conference organized two weeks ago by the national statistics center (Markazeh amareh Iran), under the aegis of several ministries, Tehran University, and the United Nations Population Fund. It was included in a compilation published by the conference, '50 Years of Household Economics,' and made available to the general public on Wednesday, reported the Islamic Students News Agency (ISNA).
The study provides a rare statistical glimpse into the country's economic welfare, a topic generally treated with secrecy by the Ahmadinejad administration.
The authors, Mansour Kiani, Khalil Attar,and Jila Habibi, determined that at least 23.3 million city dwellers are under the poverty line and cannot subsist on their households' incomes. Iran's rural population was not included in the report.
The researchers found that the average poverty line for urban households with 3.7 members is 653,000 toumans (about $630) a month if normal goods are consumed. Tehran province had the highest poverty line, 813,000 toumans a month, while Qom province had the lowest with 523,000 toumans monthly. Using this gauge, 55% of the country's city dwellers are under the poverty line.
The average figure falls to 547,000 toumans a month if cheaper substitutes, for example chicken instead of red meat, are used. In this scenario, 44.5% of urban households live under the poverty line.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's governments, over the course of his two terms, have consistently refused to provide proper statistics concerning poverty, although the 4th Development Plan which was passed into law by the Majlis six years ago clearly requires that the Welfare Ministry issue regular figures concerning the poverty line (article 95.3).
'None of the laws state what should be done or indeed what use it is to know if the poverty line is 100,000 or 400,000 toumans,' then Welfare Minister Abdolreza Mesri told a television interviewer in January 2008. 'Calculating the poverty line is good for the country's planners, but telling the people that if you make 300,000 toumans, then you are poor, only creates mental issues for them and has no other use.'
Mesri's successor, Sadegh Mahsouli, has not been more cooperative. Mahsouli, an IRGC officer who has managed to become a multi-millionaire in between stints in various governments is known as 'Ba-Mahsouli' (roughly translated as bountiful). Before taking the reins at the Welfare Ministry, he served as Interior Minister in the previous administration and, as such, oversaw the 2009 presidential election.
On the eve of the subsidy reform vote in the Majlis, he told Jameh Jam daily last November that the poverty line did not 'have any meaning in our country,' but insisted that the bill being presented by the government would help the poor and 'make the meek more powerful.'
In February of last year, the Welfare Ministry took the curious step of denying the poverty line figure presented a week earlier by the Central Bank.
'Determining the poverty line is one of the duties of the Welfare Ministry, but this ministry has yet to fulfill its obligations,' Majlis representative Sirous Borna Boldaji, who is on the legislature's social affairs committee, told Farda News (close to Tehran Mayor Ghalibaf and not to be confused with Radio Farda). 'Previously it was said that the poverty line was 900,000 toumans, but it is currently being declared that it is 500,000 toumans. Meanwhile, the Welfare Ministry doesn't accept either one of these statistics.'
A lack of hard figures has not prevented government officials from maintaining an optimistic outlook. 'The measures taken by the ninth and tenth administrations (NB Ahmadinejad's first and second terms) have considerably reduced malnutrition and severe poverty in the country,' Seyed Abdollah Emadi, in charge of the poverty alleviation office of the Welfare Ministry, told Borna News in January of last year.
But the authors of the recent report see the outlook differently. 'The conclusions of the poverty model confirm the complexity of poverty and its institutionalization in urban society,' they write. 'It appears that poverty will continue to exist as a social and economic phenomenon, at least over the next ten years.'