“We’re headed back to the Franco era, when people relied on charity”

More people are working to help their less fortunate neighbors. But what is the state doing?

Inside the Red Cross charity shop in the Madrid satellite town of Alcorcón.
Inside the Red Cross charity shop in the Madrid satellite town of Alcorcón.CARLOS ROSILLO

Spain’s welfare state has never been among the most developed or generous in Europe, and its limitations have never been more exposed as a combination of government spending cuts and an economic slump — unprecedented in a generation — plunge growing numbers of people into poverty.

According to the Ministry of Health and Social Services, around eight million people are now registered with their local authorities as being in need of financial support. Since taking office a year ago, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has cut regional funding for social services by 65 percent. Next year, the national social services budget will be just 30 million euros.

The family has traditionally provided the safety net that the state would offer in other EU member states, but the last couple of years have also seen a proliferation of civic initiatives in response to the crisis at neighborhood level, whether organizing food collections, or offering practical help with plumbing or electrical repairs, either for free or on a barter basis, as found on websites such as

Building on the work of the State Confederation of Neighborhood Associations, residents in the northern city of Zaragoza have set up Entrevecinos (Between neighbors). The aim is to help the long-term unemployed, many of whom are now homeless, to find work. The organization runs a shop in the city’s old quarter that offers food, toiletry goods and clean clothes for free.

José Carlos Monteagudo, the scheme’s coordinator, says that once people have lost their job, with no welfare state to help, they can quickly find themselves in a vicious circle, and are unable to meet their most basic needs. “The only condition we require is that those taking part in the scheme actively look for work,” he explains. “But we understand that this is only possible if one has a roof over one’s head, a square meal and clean clothes for oneself and one’s family.”

Eight million are now registered as being in need of financial support

The scheme highlights the inability of the state welfare system to meet its part of the social contract, effectively doing the Zaragoza City Hall social services department’s work for it. Social workers interview those interested in joining, and then issue them with vouchers that they take to Entrevecinos’ shop.

The Association of Mothers and Fathers of Schoolchildren was set up to help small families and single parents deal with the mounting costs of keeping their children in school as a result of cuts to the education budget that have eliminated subsidies for text books to low-income parents.

“Families donate their children’s text books to the school at the end of each academic year, so we create a library that can be used by all. If there is a shortfall, we all put some money in. That is what growing numbers of schools are doing,” says Loli Tirado, the head of a parents’ association in Castellón. “Teachers are also helping by providing photocopies of material, among other initiatives. This way we are able to cover the basics, but for example we see that there are more and more children who are unable to join school trips because their parents can’t afford to pay,” she adds.

It is a rainy day in October and a mother and her young son are dropping off a pile of barely used clothes in the Red Cross shop in the Madrid dormitory town of Alcorcón, which is staffed by volunteers. “We’ve brought them for the people who don’t have any,” says the child. The shop’s staff estimate that last year it provided shoes and clothing for some 4,000 people.

The Red Cross has its rules. Parents are not allowed to bring children in during school time, and they must also have been previously interviewed by their local social services department. At times, though, it is prepared to make exceptions, as Anunciación Cuñado Alcalde, who set up the store 25 years ago, explains. “We had a local man from Ecuador come in yesterday looking for some warm clothes so that he could work for a few weeks on the orange harvest in Valencia.”

Entrevecinos runs a shop in Zaragoza offering food and clean clothes for free

The staff explain that they receive huge amounts of garments each year, and that demand is greatest for clothing for children aged between four and 12. “We try to make sure that what we give people is good quality: we don’t want other kids at school noticing that their classmates are wearing secondhand stuff,” says Alcalde.

The Red Cross and Cáritas are the two largest charities in Spain, partly funded in the case of the latter by the Roman Catholic Church, as well as through a certain amount of government aid and donations, often via tax declarations.

Last year the two raised a total of 262 million euros, five million euros short of 2010’s figure, despite an increase in donors, which allowed them to help some five million people. Around half a million people work for Spain’s 30,000 charities, helped by around one million volunteers. There has been a 20-percent increase in volunteers this year, but charities say that more help is still needed.

“Cáritas, for example, is doing the government’s work for it by taking in the homeless, or assessing people in need, and then taking care of them itself,” says Luciano Poyato, president of the Platform for the Third Sector, which represents the country’s charities.

“Investment in social services is being slashed precisely at a time when it should be being increased. We need to call attention to these policies and the impact of the crisis on growing numbers of people.”

No money is involved, but everyone has to give something in return

Cáritas says that since the economic crisis began in Spain, the number of people who have received assistance from the agency has risen sharply from 370,251 in 2007 to 1,015,267 in 2011 — an increase of almost 174 percent.

The report says the main causes of the increase include growing unemployment, which “drastically” reduces the economic opportunities families have, and cutbacks in entitlement programs.

Between 2007 and 2011, Cáritas has seen the biggest increase in requests for food assistance, followed by requests for clothing and housing aid. In 2011 the agency spent over 42 million euros in aid for those in need.

Cáritas Spain also provides help to a third of illegal immigrants in the country. Half of those who request aid from the agency are immigrants, and “approximately 130,000 of them are in irregular situations.”

Considering that some studies estimate there are nearly 500,000 illegal immigrants in Spain, Cáritas reports that it is providing aid to “one-third of the total.”

The charity sector isn’t in need of more money, it needs less demand”

Mora said that since a new law went into effect on September 1 denying healthcare to illegal immigrants, Cáritas has seen “a greater presence of persons with this profile asking for healthcare assistance at parishes.”

He called it a “grave social injustice” that immigrants in Spain have to live in fear. “The government did not weigh the measure appropriately,” Mora said, and this has caused “great uncertainty.”

Poyato says charities are increasingly taking over from local social services. “To do this we have to keep up funding, and the only money coming in is from individuals, businesses, and less and less from the administration. We need people to keep helping, because things are going to get worse in 2013.”

The 15-M grassroots activism movement, in conjunction with the social center movement, is also playing a growing role in helping set up neighborhood self-help schemes, often by occupying empty buildings.

Growing numbers of people are taking over vacant premises in Madrid because they have nowhere else to live, but also to use them as social centers. The best known of these is the Patio Maravillas, based in the Malasaña neighborhood, which aims to provide a range of cultural and other services to local residents, forming part of the social fabric in the process. It offers an array of activities, among them classes in Spanish for immigrants, bicycle repair workshops, reading clubs, legal advice, and even free VOIP long-distance telephone calls. It also hosts frequent political discussions.

The most recent initiative to use an abandoned building as a social center in Madrid is a vast, four-story former cooperative supermarket known as the Eko, in Carabanchel.

“The building has been abandoned for 12 years,” says one of the volunteers working there. “There has been talk of turning it into apartments, but so far it has just remained empty. We’d like to refurbish it, and hand it over to the local residents.”

Around 80 people are working inside, despite the fact that there is no running water or electricity. Most of the windows have been smashed, but there are signs of progress. Most of the volunteers are part of a local division within the 15-M movement network. This is the first time they have occupied a building, but they are in contact with other social centers in Madrid, such as the Patio de Maravillas and the Tabacalera building in the Embajadores neighborhood of the capital, which is being used with the permission of the Ministry of Culture in a ground-breaking project that has brought local government and volunteers together for the first time.

Households at risk

- The average household income in Spain has decreased notably since the crisis first began, from 26,500 euros in 2008 to 24,609 this year, according to figures provided by the government.

- The number of retired people with pensions at risk of falling into poverty has dropped in recent years. However, the number of people among the rest of the population at risk of entering the poverty trap has increased over the last four years from 21 percent to 28 percent. The figure is higher in the case of children: 30 percent.

- Around 12 percent of households are barely able to live on the income they receive — the same figure as in 2008. However, the number of households that say they have some difficulty living on their income, the middle classes, has risen by two percentage points to 19.1 percent.

- Four years ago, 28 percent of households had insufficient savings to meet any emergency needs. That figure has now risen to around 40 percent this year.

“We think that what we are doing is legitimate because the government is not doing its job,” says a volunteer at the Eko. “We’re not dropouts, and we’re not trying to hide. The door is open to anybody who wants to join us.”

The center has attracted strong local support over recent months. Some people donate food, books, clothes, and even money; others give their time, teaching languages or giving classes in computer repairs.

“We have provided text books for around 500 families this year,” says Chema Mayo, one of the Eko’s volunteers. “We collected them in July. People brought last year’s books and they take the next year’s.”

The center also provides space where people who have been evicted can leave their belongings. “We are trying to meet the needs of people in the neighborhood, but not trying to replace the social services. There is no money involved, but everybody has to give something in return, they have to take part,” says Mayo.

Over its short life, the Eko ( has established an important role for itself in the community in Carabanchel. But while he praises such initiatives, José Manuel Ramírez, the president of the State Association of Heads of Social Services, says they serve to highlight the state’s failure to meet its responsibilities. “Every time a social worker has to tell somebody in need that they should call on a charity or neighborhood association, it represents a failure by our government and those responsible for social policy,” he says.

“We are seeing the dismantling of our state-run social services, and the crisis is being used as an excuse: we are headed back to the Franco years, when people had to rely on charity. This is not something that is happening in the rest of Europe, just in Spain.”

Ramírez says that charities and NGOs need to call the government’s attention to the growing gap that they are filling. “They need to defend the publicly funded system. The welfare state is the collective manifestation of solidarity. These organizations need to call on our politicians to meet their responsibilities. The charity sector isn’t in need of more money, it needs less demand. If they are unable to cope it is because governments are not doing their job, which is to invest in meeting people’s needs and providing emergency help.”

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