Austerity is one of the hot topics in the European elections because of the serious social impact it has had on countries rescued by the Troika.
Euronews went to Portugal to look at the impact the reforms have had on child poverty. Alongside a lost generation of young jobless, has the European Union also “mortgaged” the lives of millions of children?
Almost a third of children in Portugal were already at risk of poverty when the country received a 78-billion-euro bailout in 2011. Since then, austerity has had a big impact: 500,000 people have lost their child benefit payments and 120,000 depend on food aid to escape from hunger.
In Porto, the non profit association Qualificar para Incluir (Qualify to Include) works with 480 poor families.
One of its activities is giving cooking lessons to adults to train them for the catering sector and those meals are then served to around 50 children.
12-year-old Suade and her younger brother live with their mother. Bana Fati has a health problem that has prevented her from working.
“My mother can buy only a certain type of food for us to eat but sometimes we want something else and my mother cannot afford it. My uncle helps my mother by buying some clothes for us,” said Suade.
Fati gets 215 euros from the government’s Social Integration Income and 150 for child support. But rent costs 300, so she lives in constant fear of being evicted.
“To pay my rent is very difficult. Very, very difficult so I can’t provide good food. If I don’t pay the rent, they will throw us out. Where would I live with my children? My biggest concern is to pay the rent,” she said.
Between 2010 and 2012, the government cut the Social Integration Income by 22 percent, which means almost 50,000 families lost their right to it.
86-year-old José Marques is a grocer in Porto, who has seen many families struggling.
“Young families have a tough time. The jobs are not secure anymore, so they work for a few months but then they are jobless for a few months,” Marques said.
After welfare cuts, another big factor in child poverty is unemployment, which today affects around 800,000 people (17 percent) in Portugal. More than 85 percent of them have children but many get no unemployment benefit or Social Integration Income.
That is the case for Ruben’s family and the 12-year-old had some suggestions for the government.
“Things are expensive and their price should be lowered.” Ruben said, adding “other things should be increased, like the minimum salary and the Social Integration Income.”
He and his five-year-old sister live with their single mother, who is unemployed and gets a training scholarship of 146 euros and 70 euros of child benefit.
They rely on their grandmother, who is a cleaning lady, for her support.
Elvira Malhadinhas explained how she helped the family: “One month I pay the electricity and the next I can only pay the TV service. Sometimes I ask my sister to lend me money for the rent until I get my salary by the end of the month. Then I pay that but I don’t pay something else and I live like that to make ends meet.”
Qualificar para Incluir’s director, Cidália Queiroz, says the cycle of poverty is being passed down from one generation to another. She is particularly against the social housing policy which she says creates poverty ghettos.
“There are some social housing examples that are, in my opinion, serious attacks against humanity.
“There are children living in places where it is not possible to grow up and learn positive values. They learn how to be deviant and to consider prostitution and drug-trafficking as normal things.”
Over the next seven years, Portugal will receive 1.6 billion euros from the European Social Fund to be used in programmes to fight poverty. But that is only a drop in the ocean for what is needed to secure a bright future for Portugal’s children.
Unicef and nine Portuguese NGOs say that austerity has led to the denial or infringement of children’s human rights in the country
Euronews spoke to the Executive Director at Unicef in Portugal to find out more.
Madalena Marçal Grilom, Unicef Portugal:
“An extremely important factor that has a big impact on children is unemployment. It is a factor of huge importance because, firstly, it leads to material deprivation for the families due to less income available and, secondly, because parents are less available to raise their children, feeling anxious and trying to get money by alternative ways, by any activities that can bring some income”
Isabel Marques da Silva, euronews:
“So, can we make a connection between the increase in child poverty and the austerity programme that the country has suffered in the last three years?”
Madalena Marçal Grilom:
“We can say that there is material poverty because families have less income available. Access to social welfare is also diminished – namely child benefit and help with schooling expenses – because they are now more restrictive”.
“What will be the impact of this on the children’s future?”
Madalena Marçal Grilom:
“The impact of being poor and of lacking opportunities will reflect on the children’s future in terms of the quality of their formal education, in their skills to live in society and, later on, in their work productivity”.