Over 27% of Spanish population at risk of poverty or social exclusion

New report by European watchdog cites 2013 figures and covers worst period of the crisis

Social workers handing out food at a Cáritas center in Valencia.
Social workers handing out food at a Cáritas center in Valencia.REUTERS

Nearly 13 million people are at risk of poverty or social exclusion in Spain – 27.3 percent of the population, or almost one in three people – according to research released on Tuesday by the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN), a coalition of NGOs, grassroots groups and European organizations.

The Spanish numbers, which reflect social reality in 2013, make up part of a report on the evolution of social vulnerability between 2009 and 2013, the worst years of the economic crisis. The study was based on official figures released by the Spanish INE statistics bureau and other organizations.

The “Arope” (At Risk of Poverty and/or Exclusionrate is a European indicator that has become a reference in measuring poverty in a society.

Over the period under scrutiny, this rate grew 2.6 points, meaning 1.3 million people joined the ranks of the needy in that time. The rise was greater between 2009 and 2012 as a result of the wave of layoffs in the Spanish labor market.

Huge gaps between the regions

The report drawn up by the European Anti-Poverty Network reflects enormous differences between Spain’s regions – as much as 25 percentage points on the Arope index.

In general, this uneven distribution of poverty follows a north-to-south line. The northern regions of Navarre, the Basque Country and Aragón have rates below 20, while the Canary Islands, Extremadura, Castilla-La Mancha and Andalusia range between 35 and 39 percent.

The record is held by the exclave city of Ceuta, in northern Africa, where 47 percent of residents are at risk of poverty or social exclusion.

Between 2012 and 2013, the rate grew just 0.1 percent, but the report warns that this apparent stabilization “is not good news, as it might seem.” Instead it is the result of a statistical effect involving poverty measurement and overall income decreases, based on the fact that relative and not absolute poverty is being measured.

The poverty threshold is determined by comparing people’s incomes in a society. Poor people are those who make less than 60 percent of the national median. If there is a generalized downward trend in incomes – as has been the case in Spain in recent years – the threshold for being considered poor also drops.

This, together with the fact that many immigrants in precarious situations have moved back home, explains why the material poverty values remained stable (around 20 percent of the population) between 2009 and 2013.

The report’s authors note that retirees, for instance, have seen their pensions remain practically the same for years, yet officially their relative poverty rate has been reduced by 11 percent because everyone else around them has been earning less.

Broken down by age, the under-16 segment shows the highest incidence of poverty, with a rate of 26.7 percent, over six points above the population average. This is largely due to “the greater vulnerability of single-parent homes.”

The study also shows how having a job is not necessarily a guarantee against social vulnerability. In 2013, 11.7 percent of workers were living in poverty. This could be a result of the growing prominence of part-time jobs, the report notes.

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The Arope rate tries to go beyond strict poverty measurements and also takes into account two additional factors: severe material deprivation and low-intensity employment.

Both elements showed clear increases during the 2009-2013 period. Severe material deprivation, measured by a combination of factors such as being unable to meet unexpected payments or being late on the rent, grew from 4.5 percent to 6.2 percent. Also, 67 percent of the population reported having trouble making it to the end of the month.

The third element involves people living in households in which no member is working, or employment is precarious. In 2013, the percentage of people in this situation reached 15.7 percent, more than twice the rate in 2009.

The report also warns about a change in the way the INE statistics bureau compiles its data. If 2004 criteria were applied to 2013, the Arope rate would be one whole point higher, meaning that 28.4 percent of the population would be at risk of poverty and social exclusion, rather than 27.3 percent.

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