Social services hung out to dry

Central government cuts its contribution, leaving cash-strapped regional and municipal authorities to make do and mend in providing care to the vulnerable

A man prepares to eat his rations in a charity canteen.
A man prepares to eat his rations in a charity canteen.LUIS SEVILLANO (EL PAÍS)

By the government's own figures, its plans this year to cut spending on social services will leave more than half of the eight million people currently in need of a range of services - from home care for the elderly and infirm to jobless households facing eviction - entirely dependent on their increasingly cash-strapped local authorities.

In short, the economic crisis means the need for aid is rising while the money in the pot to cover it is shrinking.

The central government's contribution to social services is just 10 percent, with regional governments making up 30 percent of spending, and local authorities providing 60 percent. But Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's decision to cut last year's budget of 86 million euros to 50 million euros will put an extra burden on the regional and municipal authorities - as well as on families, which will probably have to make a bigger contribution to receive home help.

"But things could get worse," warns José Manuel Ramírez, the head of the State Association of Heads of Social Services. "If the regional administrations start to cut back on spending, then the burden will fall entirely on town halls."

Spain's 17 semi-autonomous regions are laden with around 30 billion euros in deficit - three percent of the country's economic output - after indulging in superfluous airports, art centers and high rises during the decade-long boom of cheap financing.

Since taking office in January, the new government has introduced harsh sanctions for regions that do not make deep spending cuts, part of a drive to prove to international debt markets that Spain is not a risky investment. The current administration is not entirely to blame: the previous government had already implemented savage spending cuts in 2010 and 2011. The last year has seen growing media reports of the closure of soup kitchens, women's refuges and drug treatment centers, as well as elderly and infirm people being left unattended.

Cutting the budget from €86m to € 50m puts extra stress on local authorities

But throughout the country, growing numbers of regional and municipal administrations are unable to pay their suppliers, with care workers going unpaid for several months. This has already prompted strikes in several cities, such as Jerez.

The Spanish arm of the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN), which has 14 member groups including the Spanish Red Cross and Cáritas, says the government owes its affiliates over 450 million euros.

"Some are either closing or close to closing. They just can't continue without the funds," says Carlos Susias, the group's head in Spain.

In normal times, governments or service providers could turn to banks to payroll temporary fixes, but nervous financiers have turned off the credit tap in an effort to rebuild portfolios battered by the property fiasco.

Some centers are closing. They just can't continue without the funds"

"We should remember that around 40 percent of government spending is on staff, and around 57 percent goes on services. If we cut services, then we could see jobs go, and that means that people in need will be left to fend for themselves," says Ramírez. The state association chief adds that the government's spending cuts will not be applied proportionately, meaning that some services will simply disappear.

For example, of the 1,328 social centers that the government funded in 2011, this year will see just 788 receive money. Last year, the government contributed to home help for some 600,000 people: this year that figure will fall to 423,000. In Madrid cost-cutting has hit social services such as the Anti-Drug Agency, which has had to close 11 of its 18 half-way houses.

Ramírez accuses the government of avoiding its responsibility. "We are the people who have to attend to the millions who come to our offices every day desperately looking for help. How are we supposed to explain that the state doesn't care what is happening to them?" asks Ramírez. "With the current unemployment rates and rising poverty, all the government can do is to further endanger the services we have miraculously managed to maintain so far," he adds.

Marciano Sánchez Bayle, the spokesman for the Federation of Associations for the Defense of Public Health (FADSP), also accuses the government of getting its priorities wrong. "Public health policy is about prevention: this is not something that can be measured in terms of profit and loss; it's a long-term thing," he says.

Overall, the Health Ministry's budget has been cut by four billion euros, down 6.8 percent from last year. This will mean less money across the board, particularly for public health issues such as national strategies to prevent diabetes, cigarette use and lung disease, with budget cuts in these areas of 45 percent. Spain spends more, in terms of gross domestic product, on social services such as health, pensions and unemployment benefits than developed nations on average, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Spain's jobless rate is a massive 23 percent and the economy is entering its second recession in three years. More than a quarter of the Spanish population is below - or at risk of slipping below - the poverty line. Between 2009 and 2010 more than a million Spaniards moved closer to what the European Union defines as at risk of poverty or social exclusion, accounting for 58 percent of the rise in at-risk populations across the entire European Union.

In more than 1.5 million Spanish households, not one family member has a job. Almost half of adults under 25 are unemployed. Close to a third of the 17-nation euro zone's jobless live in Spain.

Cutback victims: budget for gender violence awareness ads slashed


The long arm of austerity is beginning to reach into areas that most people would agree ought to be kept to the margins of political decision-making. Spending on media campaigns to raise awareness about violence against women is to be cut by around 70 percent, the secretary of state for social services, Juan Manuel Moreno, has announced.

Last year the government spent four million euros on advertisements on television, radio and in the print media aimed at encouraging women who are being abused by their partners to come forward, as well as reminding friends and neighbors of their responsibility. These ads also served as warnings to men who abuse women of the penalties they could face if prosecuted.

This year the budget for such public messages will be 1.2 million euros, said Moreno at a press conference last week.

"The last government made a big fanfare about this issue. It tried to make it its own, by using television; but we want to reach out to younger women, who don't watch the television, but use social networks instead. We believe that we can also reach women better through magazines, the radio, and women's groups: media that are more effective and cheaper," Moreno explains.

But Miguel Lorente, the Socialist Party's former spokesman on equality issues, angrily denies that the previous government under ex-Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was guilty of blowing its own trumpet on the issue.

"This was never about hype; we never talked about what the government was doing, but simply what to do about abuse. The message we sent out was not just to the victims themselves, but to the aggressors, and the people around them," says Lorente. "Those spots had impact," he adds, referring to messages such as "Red Card for abuse"; "Mum, do it for us; do something"; and "When you abuse a woman you cease to be a man."

Lorente says that cutting the awareness campaign will have negative results in the long term. "The victims of violence will suffer. This is a problem that society has to resolve, but it requires constant awareness." Consuelo Abril, who sits on a Congressional commission set up to study violence against women, says that awareness campaigns are effective: "They are a vital part of preventing violence, and they raise awareness."

What's more, the 2004 legislation enacted specifically to deal with violence against women legally requires that the government "set up information campaigns to prevent gender-specific violence."

The government defends its decision to cut spending on awareness campaigns by saying that it is increasing the amount of money available to fund organizations that work directly with women who have been abused by 16 percent to five million euros.

Referring to the government's amnesty to persuade businesses and individuals to declare unreported income, Ana María Pérez del Campo, a veteran anti-violence activist asks: "How is it possible to cut spending on equality and preventing violence against women while at the same time offering an amnesty to tax cheats? Spending in this area was already low. This is about politics, and shows that the government doesn't care about equality. Has it cut spending on the victims of terrorism?"

The Woman's Institute, the independent agency which promotes equality policies, has suffered a 9.3-percent funding cut down to 18.7 million euros, while the government Equality Secretariat headed by Moreno has seen its budget reduced by 18 percent to 24.9 million.

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