Three million in extreme poverty

Leading charity Cáritas talks of a "lost decade," as family income falls back to levels of 2001 More than six percent of Spaniards at risk of social exclusion

Antonio Luque, an unemployed electrician, stands in line at a soup kitchen in Jaén.
Antonio Luque, an unemployed electrician, stands in line at a soup kitchen in Jaén.JOSÉ MANUEL PEDROSA (EL PAÍS)

A combination of the economic crisis and government spending cuts is hitting Spanish society so hard that family incomes have fallen to the levels of 10 years ago, putting three million people in extreme poverty. At the same time, spending power, 18,500 euros per capita in 2012, is lower than it was in 2001. The details of this reversal were presented on Wednesday by Catholic charity Cáritas in a report that talks of a "lost decade."

The presentation, entitled Inequality and Social Rights: Analysis and Perspectives 2013, prepared by the FOESSA Foundation (Promotion of Social Studies and Applied Sociology) and other official statistical data groups, outlines the unprecedented hardships within modern Spain. The decline in living standards is due to the combined effect of the fall in income (four percent) and the rise in prices (10 percent). This combination translates into poverty that is "advancing very quickly," says Carlos Susías of the Network Against Poverty and Social Exclusion in Spain (EAPN). Referring particularly to the more marginalized sectors of society, he says: "The progression of recent years is dreadful."

Declining income is especially affecting those who already have low standards of living, with more people joining the ranks of the poor every day. Some 21.8 percent of Spaniards, or around 10 million people, now live in relative poverty - a figure that is 2.2 percent higher than that of 2008. This poverty index corresponds to 60 percent of the average national income, according to data from the EU's statistics office, Eurostat. In other words, a person is poor if they live on under 7,300 euros a year. For every adult that is added to a family unit, half of this amount would have to be included, and 30 percent for each child. According to this, a couple with two children is living below the poverty line if they have less than 15,330 euros to live on each year.

The number of people living in extreme poverty (estimated at 30 percent of the average income, 3,650 euros a year) is also growing and has already reached 6.4 percent of the population. This is up four percent from 2008 - totaling around three million people.

Analysis: Sacrificial pyramids


The insatiable economic crisis seems to have had a liberating effect, and shame has been eradicated: "We have all lived beyond our means," people say with an obscene frankness. "There has been corruption or complicity with corrupt people everywhere." Everybody? Everywhere?

Per capita income and consumption in real terms have fallen; the wealthiest 20 percent of the population now has a larger slice of the cake than five years ago; unemployment continues its unstoppable rise; the percentage of homes where the main breadwinner is unemployed is close to 20 percent, a magic figure that has clearly overtaken relative poverty; and municipal social services, or those provided by Cáritas or other NGOs for people facing social exclusion, are unable to meet demand.

As the fifth FOESSA report in 2008 showed, the growth generated between 1995 and 2007 by different booms and bubbles did not translate into any kind of equitable distribution of income. Now we can see in stark detail how the rich have gotten richer and that the super rich have sauntered off the chart. Inequality has increased sharply and does not simply produce deep social fractures within Spanish society, but also creates breaches between Spain and other European countries that will be difficult to close: the gap between the wealthiest 20 percent and the poorest 20 percent is the widest of any in Europe; our unemployment level has the honor of being the highest, and is way ahead of the European average. And the situation of our young people? Their unemployment levels and job insecurity are without parallel among our neighbors. And the same can be said of relative and severe poverty levels.

How can one not conclude that the market is efficient? It offers free time to the unemployed, and temporary and low-paid work to the employed; it encourages young people to travel in Europe... and all this allows concentration of wealth. But there are theories and policies that as Peter Berger has shown us, can produce sacrificial pyramids.

There are three pertinent questions: how many more victims will this bloodthirsty irony called austerity and budget adjustment produce? What sense does it make in the short, medium and long term? And of the victims, which of them will respond, and when? If we are not to head down the path toward an amoral and asocial Europe, somebody will need to apply other policies.

Antonio Ariño is professor of sociology at the University of Valencia.

For José Manuel Ramírez, a specialist in social services, this figure is particularly worrying, noting that extreme poverty is the stepping stone to social exclusion. "Helping these people escape from poverty, and the impact of it, demands an average of 10 years of intensive social intervention and this constitutes an enormous cost in terms of labor and resources," he explains.

The Cáritas report pays special attention to particularly troubling data - for example, the fact that 38 percent of single-parent homes with one child or more live under the poverty line, and 11.7 percent in extreme poverty (according to the Survey of Living Conditions from the National Statistics Institute's 2011 report). It also notes that the figure is similar - 48 percent living in poverty - in the case of families with two adults looking after three children. "We should not forget that poverty is the driver that leads people toward social exclusion," insists Susías. "And that this is much more difficult to combat."

Until a year ago the FOESSA reports, produced to provide a comprehensive view of the social reality of the country, were not released at any fixed time: the 2011 report was preceded by one from 2008. But given the "speed of events" related to the crisis, the authors didn't want more than 12 months to pass before assessing the situation again, the secretary general of Cáritas, Sebastián Mora, explained on Wednesday. "If the previous report revealed that poverty in Spain was more intensive, more widespread, and more chronic, today we can say that this process of impoverishment has deepened and widened."

While unemployment and resulting poverty are a major effect of the crisis, "the unprecedented increase of the distribution of inequality" in society also takes its toll. From 2006, the income of those with the least resources has fallen steadily each year to about five percent, while in wealthier households the trend has been the opposite. Since the start of the economic collapse in 2007, the difference between the richest (top 20 percent in terms of income) and the poorest (bottom 20 percent) has increased by 30 percent.

This is the dismal picture of the crisis today; but, even in the future, once the dark clouds begin to disappear and the economy improves, this discrepancy could be the same, or worse, for Spain's most vulnerable citizens. Cáritas warned that the impact of increased cuts in social spending will mean that the crisis affects the greatly disadvantaged even more in the long term. Additionally, "cuts to basic assets, the reduction of welfare payments, and the exclusion of groups of people from basic services" could become an insurmountable obstacle when it comes to getting people out of the poverty trap.

"The cuts in public services and welfare could represent a definitive break for the poorest in society," says the report. Sebastián Mora sees this as a warning: "We run the risk of abandoning the poorest... and leaving them at the mercy of an unfortunate fate."

"The way things are there now, I won't be going back"


The number of Spaniards leaving to live abroad grows each year. On January 1 of this year there were 1,931,248 of them registered as resident in other countries around the world, a 6.3-percent increase on the previous year, with two-thirds of that figure living in the Americas, according to data published on Wednesday by the National Statistics Institute (INE). Since 2008, the number has increased by 450,000.

But many recent emigrants, prompted to leave Spain by the crisis, have no reason to register until they have been in the country for several years, says Amparo González, a demographer at the CSIC Science Council, which means that the real figure is likely to be much higher. Of the two million Spaniards registered in another country about which something is known, more than 1.2 million live in the Americas, and 650,000 in Europe. There are 60,000 in the rest of the world.

Jon Ugarte (born in Vitoria, age 24) is an architect who moved to Brazil with a grant and to investigate whether he could find work there. He left straight after finishing university, with no experience of the labor market. "My internship is coming to an end and I will continue to work for the same company off the books. This is normal here because it is very difficult to get a work permit," he says. Of the 157,933 Spaniards newly registered as living abroad in 2012, Brazil is one of the countries where their numbers have increased the most (9,800 newly registered), behind Argentina, where the increase is 17,500, and ahead of Cuba, with 8,600. Ugarte is not registered as a resident, but hopes to get a work permit "in a year or two." "The idea of the grant is that you train abroad and bring added value to Basque companies, but the way things are there right now, I won't be going back," he says by phone.

"The data reflects a growing, but not desperate, trend of Spaniards leaving the country to look for work," says the CSIC's demographer. Of the newly registered in 2012, 59.1 percent were born in their current country of residence. Many obtained Spanish nationality thanks to the Law of Historical Memory for being family members of those exiled during the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship, who had never traveled to Spain. Nevertheless, the experts agree that the exodus is worrying and bad for the country.

"Whether they are Spaniards or naturalized immigrants returning to their countries, we are talking about a population that knows the language, the labor market and our culture," says González. "It is not just about losing university graduates. We are also losing those who do not come. If things were better, the descendants of exiles would be candidates to come here, many of them qualified," says Antonio Izquierdo, a professor of sociology at the University of La Coruña.

"I left because there isn't enough work for everybody," explains Antonio Rivera, a 42-year-old engineer from Granada. He is the director general of a branch of a Spanish electricity company based in San José Dos Campos, in the Brazilian province of São Paulo. The company hired him last year, when he moved to Brazil. "Your company has to show that you are indispensable for the position, otherwise it is unlikely they will give you a visa. Brazil doesn't accept unskilled labor," says Granada, who is waiting for his visa to be renewed. In April Brazil made it much harder for Spaniards to enter the country under the terms of its reciprocity agreement. "Many go to try - some 40,000 came back - but my belief is that the number of Spaniards living abroad is going to continue rising. When all the requests from the children of the exiles have been resolved, we will have to look for other reasons," says Izquierdo.

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