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Odd Jobs Argentina*

May 1, 2002

For Argentines, Odd Jobs Are Helping Pay the Bills



BUENOS AIRES -- Through four grueling years of recession while friends and neighbors were losing their jobs, Monica Guerra used her thick Rolodex and sheer willpower to keep business rolling into her architecture studio.

But over the past four months, as a banking freeze and a devalued currency sapped much of the cash from Argentines' pockets, the country's ever-intensifying financial crisis has finally caught up with her. Ms. Guerra, 48 years old, has put aside her drafting pencils and is retailing eggs from her kitchen table.

"I didn't study in university to buy and sell eggs," says the mother of four. "It drives me crazy not to be the owner of my destiny."

As Argentina's economy ground virtually to a halt in recent months, even the most resourceful members of the middle class have resorted to similar informal work and financial acrobatics. Barter clubs are now common in the capital's leafy suburbs. Buenos Aires homemakers are taking long bus rides to the outskirts of town to shop at discounted produce markets. Consumers who once scoffed at the provincial scrip that circulates in Buenos Aires find they don't have much else to spend.

Argentine sociologist Artemio Lopez says this "hyper-illiquidity" is increasingly being felt higher on the social ladder. More than half the Argentines now living in poverty are former members of the middle class, he says, noting that since October the unemployment rate has jumped to 24% from 18.3%.

The sudden reversal is a shock to people like Diana Weis, 46, who lost her job as general manager of a small cellphone company two years ago. Lacking other prospects, two months ago she decided to volunteer full-time as a secretary at her synagogue. "Really, it was to be able to get out of the house, and to show myself that I can still work as a professional," says Ms. Weis, who holds three advanced degrees in finance and accounting.

Ms. Guerra's travails began in December, when the government froze deposits to halt a bank run, allowing only small weekly withdrawals. It destroyed her business designing middle-income housing, since home buyers could no longer access their savings. Another blow came when Argentina allowed the currency to devalue in January: The city government abruptly terminated her design contracts, and most real-estate commerce ceased.

At first Ms. Guerra, who counts politicians and captains of industry among her friends, started calling around to drum up business or even take on part-time work. But even a call to the assistant cabinet chief, an old acquaintance, yielded no results. And she got little response from sending out hundreds of resumes, including to design firms in Switzerland and Brazil. "For the first month and a half I cried all day. I thought it was my own fault," she recalls, as her daughter Natalia, 11, nods in recognition.

Ms. Guerra, a divorcee who supports her children mostly unassisted, had little money in the bank to cushion the blow. She started by slashing costs: buying cheaper brands at the supermarket, turning off lights at home, mending last year's rugby jerseys and cutting small luxuries like taxis.

The transition to a downmarket lifestyle was jarring. But necessity took hold one day, when she noticed crates of eggs on sale at a local food wholesaler. On a hunch she bought 10 dozen, and resold them at a 20% markup, or about 50 cents per dozen, still half the supermarket price. Grateful neighbors bought the whole lot. Empowered by the egg sales, Ms. Guerra and a friend began cooking jams and canning tomato paste in Ms. Guerra's kitchen, both for their own use and for sale.

All the while she's kept up with the bit of architecture business that still trickles in, mostly paperwork for small-business closures. Even that has been transformed by the financial crisis: Clients who used to make payments in dollars or pesos arrived instead with Lecops and Patacones, the bonds issued by cash-strapped government entities when they ran out of hard currency. Though many stores will accept these bonds, Ms. Guerra says she knows they are "fictitious money" that can't even be deposited in banks.

To stay a step ahead of the crisis she also assiduously follows the local news. She was tuned into the radio news on a recent Friday when the government announced that an open-ended banking holiday would begin the following Monday. Rushing to the bank, she emptied her savings account.

Write to Pamela Druckerman at pamela.druckerman@wsj.com1

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