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Spain struggles to fight poverty

Stefanie Müller
June 3, 2020

Poverty had been widespread in Spain long before COVID-19 hit the southern European nation. Since the early 1980s, 10% of the population has been without a job. Stefanie Claudia Müller reports.

Members of Cruz Roja in Spain at work in Madrid
Image: Rotes Kreuz Madrid

Padre Angel knows that poverty in Spain had existed long before the coronavirus crisis hit the nation. In his congregation in Madrid, he's been trying for years to do what the state isn't able to do. The church still has a major say in Spanish society and plays a crucial role in education and the fight against poverty.

Besides Caritas, Padre Angel's Mensajeros de la Paz (Ambassadors of Peace) is among the many organizations in the country that give away food, do pastoral counseling and provide shelter for the homeless.

"There's never been such poverty before," said the 83-year-old. "Before the coronavirus crisis we used to give away some 100 breakfast packages a week; now it's the same amount per day." For a long time, the state had been reluctant to introduce welfare benefits for those in need, "despite their number having increased considerably over the past 10 years," as the padre knows from his own experience.

Back in 2011, many victims of the global financial crisis and corruption in Spain took to the streets to demand a fairer economic order. It was not before a leftist coalition government took over in January that first steps were taken toward more social justice.

Current figures are not available, but a 2018 Banco de Espana (Spain's central bank) report shows that poverty has been on the rise since 2009, particularly among the 45-to-54-year-olds. Over 10 years ago, 720,000 households were affected by poverty — nine years later the figure had swollen to 1.2 million.

Although questioned by many at home, the European Commission is in favor of the basic security benefits that Spain is now granting despite high public deficits. These benefits are only for people whose gross annual income does not exceed €16,000 ($17,900) or for households with 4 family members and an aggregate income of less than €45,000 annually.

"Every crisis has exacerbated social inequality in Spain, and the coronavirus pandemic has been the third severe blow to our economy since we joined the EU," noted the head of the Spanish branch of Caritas, Francisco Lorenzo.

Padre Angel of Mensajeros de Paz in Spain
Padre Angel of Mensajeros de Paz has been fighting an uphill battle against growing poverty in SpainImage: Mensajeros de Paz

More sustainability required

Padre Angel has focused on combating growing child poverty in his country. "It's a shame that 2 million people here often have to go hungry and have not enough clothes to wear," he said. His church is located in the district of San Anton in downtown Madrid and is open for homeless and hungry people.

During the protracted coronavirus-caused lockdown, the padre used social media platforms such as Instagram for his pastoral counseling.

Normally, poor people are allowed to take a shower in his church and use wireless internet for free. And they can eat in special restaurants. "We want to give some dignity back to as many people as possible so that they won't be ashamed to appear for a job interview," he said.

People can even get their hair cut and have a pedicure for free. That's not to be sneezed at, given that Spain has the second-highest unemployment rate in the EU, only ahead of Greece.

The jobless rate currently stands at 17%. But the shadow economy is also estimated to account for 25% of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP). This goes to show how inefficient the economy still is.

"Unlike during the global financial crisis in 2008, the current pandemic is now also bringing middle-class families to the soup kitchens, that is families that don't have enough savings to cover their basic needs," said Maria Blanc Fernandez-Cavada from Caritas in Madrid.

People are living beyond their means," argued economist and sociologist Andres Villena. This means that some 850,000 households are bound to be entitled to the monthly €462 in welfare benefits starting in June.

Since there are no child allowances in Spain, each child living in a poor family will increase benefit payouts by €130 per household affected.

"But we want to avoid a situation where people can just lean back and do nothing," said Spanish Vice President Pablo Iglesias in a bid to soothe right-wing campaigners. "The Spanish government has the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move toward a more sustainable economy and make our social net more resilient," Villena said.

Members of the Spanish branch of Caritas
The Spanish branch of Caritas has enough on its plate to distributing food packages to the needyImage: Caritas Madrid

Women and children victims of political decisions

But not all of those in need will profit from the welfare benefits. Estimates suggest that there are half a million migrants in the country without a residence permit, and these people are going to fall by the wayside.

The Spanish Red Cross (Cruz Roja) reckons it'll have to help an additional 2.4 million people come to terms with the fallout of the pandemic, providing psychological and material assistance. The problem is that council housing is not as available and affordable as, say, in Germany, and not everywhere in Spain do people have access to accommodation allowances.

Overpriced apartments have made the whole system "sick," said Villena, who's frequently criticized real estate speculation. Cruz Roja says women and children are hit hardest by the pandemic which is expected to lead to massive layoffs in the next couple of months.

One of those already suffering is 40-year-old Carmen Perez (name was changed to protect her anonymity). Perez has two children aged 9 and 11. She works at a communications agency in Madrid and has seen a drastic decrease in orders since March. The single parent has had to accept short-term work, and her savings are exhausted.

"If they fire me, I'll have to move back to my parents," she said. Right now, she manages to make ends meet because her landlord agreed to temporarily reduce her rent by 20%.

"We don't make provisions to see us through hardships like these — the Germans are better at this," said Villena, adding he hoped some rethinking would finally set in in Spain in the wake of the current crisis.

Padre Angel for his part notes that nothing is more important than the people themselves. "This is what the 30,000 virus-caused deaths have shown us in a very dramatic way," he said.

Ranks of poor swell in Spain