POVERTY

Spain’s social protection system is broken, says United Nations expert

After 12-day visit to country, Special Rapporteur Philip Alston concludes that ‘people in poverty have been largely failed by policymakers’

Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, in Madrid on Friday.
Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, in Madrid on Friday.Samuel Sánchez

Spain is failing to address inequality, and some policies are keeping people in poverty by design. That’s according to Philip Alston, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

After spending 12 days in Spain, Alston gave a press conference on Friday that described a country where many people have been left behind by the post-crisis recovery and where the social-protection system “is broken.”

Alston, 70, an independent expert who does not receive a wage from the UN, visited six Spanish regions. He said that he had seen people living in “garbage dumps” and in some of the worst conditions he had seen anywhere on his travels.

This expert described “deep, widespread poverty and high unemployment, a housing crisis of stunning proportions, a completely inadequate social-protection system that leaves large numbers of people in poverty by design, a segregated and increasingly anachronistic education system, a fiscal system that provides far more benefits to the wealthy than the poor, and an entrenched bureaucratic mentality in many parts of the government that values formalistic procedures over the well-being of people.”

His preliminary report, which is not binding, underscores that 26.1% of the population, including 29.5% of children, is at risk of poverty or social exclusion, and that the unemployment rate is 13.7%, more than twice the EU average.

“The word I have heard most frequently over the past two weeks is ‘abandoned’,” said Alston, who visited parts of Madrid, Galicia, Andalusia, Extremadura, Catalonia and the Basque Country. Asked about the cases that struck him the most, the expert mentioned a Roma woman who lived in a trash dump with her children, fruit pickers in the southern province of Huelva who “live like animals” with no electricity or sanitation or running water, and also “an ordinary family who was evicted” and is now on the street after a long battle to keep their home.

Ultimately, “people in poverty have been largely failed by policymakers.” Alston described a system made “by design” to leave people in poverty, but he also expressed hope that the new coalition government in Spain will be able to introduce reforms to address these failures.

“The bright spot in the situation is that the new coalition government is firmly committed to achieving social justice, but the challenges are great,” he said. “With its embrace of social rights and fiscal justice, and prioritization of the most vulnerable, the new government’s message is a welcome one, but its actions must live up to that rhetoric.”

Speaking to EL PAÍS after the news conference, Alston said he believes that many of the policies that he recommends, including tax, housing and labor market reforms, “could be adopted very quickly.”

He also had praise for Spain’s public healthcare system, “which truly works and is close to being universal. And the pensions system keeps a lot of elderly people out of poverty. So not everything is negative. But I’m here to focus on what needs to be done.”

English version by Susana Urra.