Austerity and the new Spanish poverty

By Anya Schiffrin
September 24, 2012

During the parts of my childhood I spent in Spain in the sixties and seventies, life was what we call “de la vieja escuela,” strictly old school. My grandmother and her sisters, who were all widows or spinsters, had money left from their husbands and fathers but lived frugally. Ice cream (not artisanal but bought from the kiosk on the corner) was a treat for Sunday lunch. My great-aunt Clementina left an embarrassingly cheap 25-cent tip whenever she took me for an afternoon snack of hot chocolate and churros (fried dough). The same old leather address book sat by the phone in the living room for decades until it was all worn out, and even then no one saw the need to replace it.

I thought those days were over, but now every time we go to Spain we see the slow-motion unraveling of a world that was built after the end of the dictatorship that Spain lived under for nearly 40 years. With 50 percent youth unemployment and 24.6 percent general unemployment there is no hope and no end in sight. I no longer remember when the crisis began to hit the careful middle class that I grew up knowing, and the literary and artistic types I lived with in Barcelona in the exciting years after General Franco died.

First to go were vacations abroad, then it was buying clothes and eating out. Friends who had apartments left to them by their relatives tried to rent them out or sell them, but there were no takers. They moved in with each other to save money. They moved to the suburbs because it was cheaper. About 18 months ago, my friend Ana told me they had come up with a wonderful idea: Once a month her friends would come over and bring a dish, and they’d all watch a DVD together. It sounded like fun until my husband pointed out: “That means they don’t go to the movies anymore either.” Last June in Barcelona, Ana said: “We know none of us will work again. What we worry about is the young people. All those 20- and 30-year-olds living at home with their parents.”

It’s hard to imagine it getting worse, but it is. Here is a new trend: restaurants that don’t serve food but provide cutlery and a plate and reheat the lunch that cash-strapped office workers bring from home. Every day last week when we went out to eat in Barcelona or Madrid we found some previously ubiquitous food item was no longer available. Could we order a slice of the kind of ham that used to hang from the ceiling of every self-respecting bar in the country? All out. A glass of sherry? Nope. The bottle was finished and was not replaced. In a crisis like this, it’s not worth restocking.

The mood has changed dramatically in the last few months. The 2011 elections gave everyone a chance to vent their anger: They threw out Prime Minister Zapatero and the Socialists – blaming them for not doing more to fight the recession, and brought in Mariano Rajoy and his conservative Partido Popular. But as long as Spain remains in the euro, there is little to be done. The German politicians who demand austerity for Spain are accountable not to Spanish citizens but to the German electorate, and the Germans treat Spain as if it were Greece, as if it had been profligate – when in fact, before the crisis, Spain had a surplus and a low debt-to-GDP ratio.

It is easy to sit in Brussels or Berlin and pontificate about lazy southerners who don’t work long hours or pay enough taxes. But seeing what Spain has become is another matter. One of my favorite propaganda posters from the Spanish Civil War was a 1930s-style picture of a red mailbox with hands thrusting letters in to it. The caption read something like “tell the world about Spain.” Before pushing for harsh policies, it’s a good idea to listen to the stories told by the people who must live with economic austerity plans.

PHOTO: A man looks through the window of a store announcing a closing sale in central Madrid, September 24, 2012.  REUTERS/Andrea Comas

10 comments

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Your raw numbers on unemployment seem to be ok, although these are averages, and there are wide differences in those across the whole country. Of course the crisis here is deep and hurting for many people, specially in the large cities like Madrid and Barcelona.

However, that you could not find a slice of ham and/or a glass of sherry in two Spanish bars in a row could hardly occur, anywhere in Spain..

Are you sure you were really here?? I seriously doubt it.. Alternatively, you must have visited places that are no longer bars (you know, it is not appropriate to ask for a slice of ham in a vacated place or a computer store, even in Spain)..

Posted by JavierAB | Report as abusive

scythe – I see you’re as obtuse as ever. It’s people like you who keep humanity down, no matter how tantalisingly close we come to rebounding.

Posted by MoBioph | Report as abusive

Thank you for reporting on the human side of this. Your description shows why austerity begets a shrinking economy.
For Spain, the only way out of this problem without leaving the Euro is for non-financial (or, for a nominal fee only) community initiatives to start up; like the community schools in Germany where everyone from the same village gets together to share their skills and teach each other something new (even if that initially means for old ladies to teach young women how to busy themselves darning socks, or old men teaching young men teaching boys how to grow vegetables or keep chickens on an allotment etc.)

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

This downward spiral dates back to the late 1990′s, but in reality there should never have been a middle class in Spain. People from “pueblo” made the migration to the cities, and became educated in the 1970′s, and 80′s. They were people “pueblo” who in many ways should’ve stayed in pueblo.

Posted by donq22 | Report as abusive

Unfortunately, the only solution for many of my Spanish friends (21-25 especially) is prostitution, especially with wealthier Germans, Russians, Americans or Arabs. At first I felt bad doing it, but you do get used to it and I think that my strong mind can survive it without too many scars. I make enough to eat and live with friends and I hope to only do it until I’m 30 and then I’m hopeful things can change.

Posted by joelrain | Report as abusive

Oh, please do not blame Germans for the mess. Also, mentioning that before the crisis Spain had budget surplus and low debt to GDP ratio is counterproductive.
Spain was living for years way beyond its means using credits from banks, especially construction went mad. This generated huge sums for the government and the budget surplus. One can speculate if the euro is to be blamed /note that UK and US are in the same category/ but there is absolutely no other possibility then returning to life within means. One example: agriculture and turist sector. Millions of cheap foreigners came to work in these sector since no Spaniard would work mean jobs. That has to change. There are also huge problems in the way economy and state works, rigidities of the labor market and regions spedning of money. That has also to change.

Life within means could be brought by either leaving euro and facing huge devaluation – with standard of living declining anyway but with all structural problems intact. Or, like now, staying in euro with austerity and structural changes forced by it. This is more painful in the beginnign but infinitely more productive in the long trem.

Please note that Germany itself has undertaken painful reform and now is collecting fruits ot it.

Posted by wirk | Report as abusive

No need to complicate matters. Simply put the EU Elite have raided the unsuspecting & rather ignorant EU workers, especially in the under-industrialized southern countries, where governments are even more corrupt and willing.
Everything else is just a pretense and a cover for the the real cause, which is; the whole world is moving back to Aristocracy.

Posted by EthicsIntl | Report as abusive

The people of Spain are getting what they deserve. They did stupid things and now are paying the price. Maybe Spain should not have joined the EU. Maybe Spain should have spent less on social programs/entitlements. Maybe Spain should have paid more attention to business and not killed the golden goose. Maybe Spain should not allow in immigrants. The list goes on and on.

The facts no one wants to read.

Learn to think for yourself.

Banned from huffpost.

Censorship is evil.

PS Want Spain’s problems fixed,

see http://trueproblems.wordpress.com/

Posted by ALLSOLUTIONS | Report as abusive

I really enjoy seeing eyewitnes accounts. Anya’s memories aren’t saccharin. They are vivid.

Every economy and type of government seems to have it’s aristocracies but what scares me is when they become the only show in town.

The economy is too miserably tight if kids have to sell themselves as sex toys and public conveniences. It’s a perverse twist on the idea of the porcelain dolls.

It also puts the lie to the notion that hard times are good for the public morals and instill good values. That may work if you aren’t the one having to be the facility.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Euro is a Big Business for Germany. They are hungry for bail out. It is simple, Germany ask for a cheap credit, then they buy spanish debt in euros at sky-high returning interest rates. At the end it happens… To have a piece of cake, market pays Germany (Instead of asking an interest rate) to lend them money. Theyve got all countries in eurozone paying their loans. Usurers

Posted by Ade1982 | Report as abusive