Únor 2008

Poverty in Europe

1. února 2008 v 15:35 | Per Wirten

Unacknowledged, unseen, unmentioned

Poverty in Europe
Impoverished German children dream of the USA; one Greek person in four is behind with their most basic bills; sixty per cent of the poor in Romania have outdoor toilets. Cracks are appearing in Europe's beloved image of itself as the egalitarian alternative to the United States, writes Per Wirtén.
What do we really know about poverty in Europe? Not a lot. The constant flow of facts, images and stories from the other side of the Atlantic means I know more about American poverty than its European counterpart. There is a steady stream of books and articles about "the working poor" at Wal-Mart, Latinos in Los Angeles and Afro-Americans in run-down slum districts. How many of us have read books like Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich's account of struggling to get by in low-wage hell? Or avidly immersed ourselves in the slums of Baltimore in the TV series The Wire?

But there is poverty in Europe, too. It brushes past my face in daily life, when I am travelling, or on rare occasions in the odd newspaper article I have kept. But only as fragments, dead leaves and flakes of black soot in the wind. I am aware that it exists, but know hardly anything about it.

Last summer I walked in the shadow of thunder clouds through Stockwell in South London: dilapidated buildings, worn pavements, grilles over the doors and windows of each individual shop. The whole environment was reminiscent of the former GDR. The next day, I travelled through small, dreary, post-industrial towns in the north of England. On my journey I read about a British report that found that the proportion of poor people is back at the level it was in the 1960s, that growing class divisions are tearing the middle classes apart, and that the only positive news is the reduction in numbers of the most vulnerable.

In October this year I spent a few days in Berlin. Two German sociologists describe in the anthology Neighbourhoods of Poverty the situation of the poor in the working class district of Neukölln. I read that those interviewed had a monthly income of between 300 and 500 euros, that half had not had a proper job for 15 years, that they have given up on the labour market, and that, by relying on a disciplined "management of scarce resources", they get by on odd jobs and welfare handouts. Children become locked into poverty when they are forced to give up school to help bolster the family's meagre income. Many dream of emigrating (maybe to the USA).
"The EU must identify specific measures and prove the model with bold experiments," he writes. What is needed is a concerted equality policy targeted at those on the lowest incomes in the poor peripheries of Europe. If their income levels can be raised, the whole continent will benefit, with falling unemployment and a higher standard of living, the same effect achieved by the New Deal in the USA.

The alternatives are stark: "Either income convergence will be made to happen in the poorer regions of Europe, or migration will swamp labour markets in the core countries. In the alternative, the European project will fail and be replaced by a xenophobic nationalism and the social policies of the extreme Right."

Europe's self-image, its political identity as a fairer and more egalitarian alternative to the USA, is a European dilemma. Unless the self-image is based on real a political project, it will become self-deception, echoing ever more hollowly and ultimately degenerating into a pure lie.