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Spain: poverty hits millions despite growth

Spain: poverty hits millions despite growth
By Valérie Gauriat with Lise Pedersen
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It looks like an ordinary summer’s day at a swimming pool on the outskirts of Sevilla in southern Spain: a group of children are splashing around in the water.

It looks like an ordinary summer’s day at a swimming pool on the outskirts of Sevilla in southern Spain: a group of children are splashing around in the water.

But this is a special day for them. They are here with social workers from the organisation Entre Amigos (Between Friends).

They are part of the millions of Spaniards who are not reaping the benefits of the economic upturn.
We travel with them to their neighbourhood in Polígono Sur, known as ‘the ’3.000 homes’, one of the poorest in Spain.

The children are among hundreds who receive free meals from the organisation over the summer holidays in schools across the neighbourhood. It’s part of a program launched nationwide three years ago by the NGO Educo.

“Requests for our summer meals have gone up by 40% compared to last year,” Fernando Rodríguez of Educo Andalucía tells us. “The economic crisis has led to budget cuts in social funding, education, health. That has led to many families trying to cut down on food spending. Nobody is going hungry, but there is malnutrition in Spain.”

More than 40% of children live in poverty in Sevilla. It may be a prime tourist destination, but it is also the country’s fifth poorest city. A situation that is gaining ground among Spain’s middle class families.

Families like Salud Funes’. Every morning, on her way to work, she drops off her twins at a school in the Palmete neighbourhood, where the NGO Save the Children fills in the gaps in Spain’s welfare system, offering the children games and educational activities.

“New families have arrived, people who have lost their jobs, or who work in very precarious conditions and no longer have any social benefits. Our main concern is that this kind of poverty is turning into a chronic phenomenon,” says Javier Cuenca, head of the Save the Children Andalucía.

Salud lives with her family in her parents’ house, along with her sister’s and her brother’s families.

Both she and her husband have jobs – she works as a domestic help and he is a construction worker – but they cannot afford to pay the rent on a home of their own.

“My mother helps us out, she puts food on the table every day, and she buys breakfast for the kids. That way we manage,” she tells us.

Out of work for several years following the economic crisis, Salud’s husband finally found a job a few months ago. But the wages are unreliable, she says.

“The first month he earned 800 euros, the second 900 euros, the third 550 euros. It’s a total disaster, we don’t know what we’re going to earn from one month to the next. It varies, depending on how many hours work we get. So I save money the months I earn more, which I spend when I earn less. Because otherwise there are months when we wouldn’t even be able to afford the bills.”

In another part of Sevilla, in the heart of the old town, we meet Manolo Garrido. He is an activist, and spokesman with the so-called Platform for Mortgage victims, the PAH.

Most of the people we meet at PAH’s Sevilla premises used to lead comfortable lives. The crisis changed all that. In debt, unable to cope with prohibitive bank rates, some have already lost their homes. Others are fighting to keep theirs.

“They come here to find comfort and help, we tell them there is always room for negotiation. If they cannot pay off their debt, maybe there is another solution, they don’t necessarily have to end up on the street,” Manolo explains.

Celestina Velasco is among those who found hope at the PAH. She used to run a building company with her husband, which employed some fifteen people. When their biggest clients failed to pay the bills, the couple was unable to pay back their bank loans. They went bankrupt. Their flat was seized. The company’s offices are being put up for auction.

“Look,” she shows us the closed-down offices, “these were our offices. I lost my home, and now a court case is under way, and the bank is likely to seize the place. And even then, I will have to continue to pay off my debt… for the rest of my life.”

Today, Celestina lives with her two children in her 25-year old son’s flat. With his monthly salary of 1.000 euros, he provides for most of their needs.

Celestina’s fall brought on serious depression and a divorce. At 53, she’s trying to resurface. She has just found a temporary job in a service company for the elderly, for 500 euros a month.

“I have this job for two or three months, I don’t know how long it will last,” she tells us. “Every day, I look for work, I never stop. I ask for help from social workers and from Caritas, they put me in touch with people, and so I send CVs to restaurants, bars, places like that. I’m just trying to find something.”

Spain has one of the highest growth rates in the eurozone. But poverty rates in Andalusia are the same as they were at the height of the crisis, says Mariano Perez de Ayala, the regional head of Caritas (the Catholic Agency for International Aid and Development). According to him, austerity policies and labor law reforms have led to more precarity in Spain.

“Our system doesn’t smooth out inequalities in times of economic boom, and it destroys a lot of jobs and deepens inequalities in times of crisis,” he says. “The crisis has reversed many social achievements in Europe. We have seen the rise of a neo-liberal model that undermines the social welfare system. Labour reforms that have been implemented according to this model have been detrimental to the social achievements of recent years.”

Asunción Campanario has not had a permanent job for nine years. Once a week, she goes to the wholesalers to buy goods which she sells on markets and in her neighborhood.

A mother of two, she also takes care of her elderly mother. She says she and her husband simply couldn’t cope without the help of charities.

“I used to have my own business, I ran a bar, I also worked in wholesale trade, I sold jewelry and accessories. My husband also worked wherever he found a job – in lift maintenance, on building sites – we did quite well. We worked for others and we were much better off then. Now we are self-employed, and we work much more for less.”

The next morning, we meet Asunción at the market.

“Sales are low, they’re low, because it is very hot and there aren’t many people, but I’m coping! I talk a lot, so I manage to sell!”

Asunción makes the best of the situation but she doesn’t expect to see things improve anytime soon: “This will last,” she tells us. “Politicians will keep on stealing money and filling their pockets. They only think of themselves! And we, the poor people, we are the last in the world! We’ll just keep on being poor. The poor will get poorer and the rich will get richer. It’s always been that way.”

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