Putin highlights poverty as major problem for Russia

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MOSCOW, June 8 (RIA Novosti) - President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that poverty was one of the most pressing problems facing Russia, and that the government should be working to increase economic growth rates.

Speaking at a video conference devoted to priority national projects, Putin said: "Poverty is one of the biggest problems [facing Russia]. A large percentage of the population lives below the poverty line or is simply poor."

The multibillion-dollar national projects, which target healthcare, housing, education, and agriculture, are designed to improve living standards across the country. Other priority areas Putin has proposed include doubling GDP by 2010 and cutting inflation.

The UN World Summit in September 2005 cited statistical data from Russia, which said 18% of the population, or about 30 million people, currently lives in poverty. Poverty levels varied from 8-9% to 70% in some areas in 2004.

Putin said ensuring sustainable economic growth was the best way to solve the problem, and that it should be a main priority for the government. He also reiterated that the government planned to allocate considerable funds to tackle Russia's looming demographic crisis.

Demographic problems dominated the president's May 10 state of the nation address, when Putin said the population was falling by 700,000 people a year and instructed the government to give women at least 250,000 rubles ($9,200) each as financial aid following the birth of a second child.

The United Nations earlier warned that Russia's population - which stood at roughly 145 million in a 2002 census - could fall by as much as a third by 2050.

Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said following the speech that the first allocations for second child benefits in 2007 would total 160 billion rubles ($5.91 billion), and payouts would start by 2010.

Russia has said it will highlight poverty on the agenda of the Group of Eight club of leading industrialized nations, in which it currently holds the rotating presidency, along with energy security, terrorism and the fight against infectious disease.

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