A generation sacrificed

Financial crisis in the euro zone has sparked a social crisis, as scores of families are pushed into poverty by punishing austerity measures

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2012, 2:55am


Crushed by an austerity squeeze and towering unemployment, millions of Europeans joined the ranks of the newly poor this year in a crisis that showed no mercy for the old, women or children.

An arc of misery spread pitilessly across southern Europe’s middle classes, engulfing bailed-out nations Greece and Portugal and rocking heavyweights such as the euro zone’s number four and three economies, respectively, Spain and Italy.

“The black hole is getting bigger and bigger,” fretted Mercedes Gonzalez, a 52-year-old Spaniard who has less than €800 (HK$8,004) a month to raise her unemployed family in the Madrid suburb of Fuenlabrada.

In July, she was still pocketing the monthly state aid of €426 for the long-term unemployed. But the benefit was slashed to €360 last month, she said, and in the meantime a September 1 rise in sales tax lifted the price of food and other regular bills.

“Things are really getting worse, we can’t breathe already,” said the energetic unemployed saleswoman whose voice betrayed weariness as she contemplated caring for herself, her carpenter husband and two of her three adult sons, who are all out of work.

Spain is displaying all the signs of a major social crisis, with one in four workers unemployed, an unprecedented austerity squeeze by the state, cuts to education and health care, and thousands of indebted families thrown out of their homes and into the streets.

In Spain, where two homeowners threatened with eviction recently committed suicide – as in other southern European nations such as Greece and Italy – the economic crisis is sowing implacable despair.

In Italy, the fate of an unemployed bricklayer who was being chased for unpaid taxes moved the entire country.

Giuseppe Campaniello set himself ablaze outside a tax office at the end of March and died after nine days of agony.

“You can’t expect a self-employed bricklayer to pay taxes even for the months when he is not working. The state beats you up and Giuseppe paid the consequences,” his 48-year-old widow said Tiziana Marrone from Bologna in central Italy said.

“Giuseppe was not helped out. He felt he had his back to the wall. That morning he had to go to a criminal hearing for his taxes. It should have never got to that. We all make mistakes but he never stole from anybody!

“His was also a protest. Our laws drove him to it. It wasn’t a suicide linked to the crisis, it was state-sanctioned murder.”

Marrone herself is now in a desperate situation, as she has inherited her husband’s massive debts and lives on an allowance of €450 a month. She is forced to rely on handouts from her pensioner mother to survive.

In Greece, the crisis delivered another fatal blow. In April, a 77-year-old chemist shot himself in the head, leaving a note that accused the government of stripping him of the resources to live.

In Greece, where the unemployment rate is the highest among industrialised nations at 25.4 per cent in August, the crisis has hit people harder than any other nation in southern Europe: 31 per cent of its inhabitants were at risk of poverty or social exclusion last year compared to a European Union average of 24.2 per cent.

George Tsouvalakis, a 31-year-old jobless carpenter, and his 30-year-old wife, Lia, are among a “lost generation” of thirty-somethings sacrificed by the crisis.

With their two-year-old daughter, Angelina, they are trying to leave the country, but cannot afford the plane ticket. Their income fell from €2,500 a month before the crisis to between zero and €400.

“We should not remain in the country any more, that is what I see. But we don’t have the financial capability to leave this country. That is our problem or else we would have already left,” Lia said.

In Portugal, too, where 24.4 per cent of the population is estimated to be at risk of poverty or exclusion, the crisis has mortgaged the futures of many young people.

The UN children’s fund Unicef estimated there were 2.2 million children living below the poverty line in Spain. In Portugal, the education ministry has sounded the alarm because, in the space of just 20 days, the number of pupils lacking food leapt from 10,000 to 13,000.

Even pensioners, some of them looking after entire families, are not safe: the right-leaning Spanish government has revealed the rise in retirement pensions will be less than had been expected next year, breaking an electoral promise.