In Europe, poverty and inequality are political choices

As we launch our new paper on the impact of austerity in Europe, guest blogger Claire Champeix from the European Anti-Poverty Network, says the EU needs to stop breaking its promises to its citizens.

A Cautionary Tale jacket and download link

Poverty in Europe is steadily and worryingly rising. It is the most vulnerable that are paying the highest price for the recession, and subsequent austerity. We are seeing more social exclusion, more working poverty, and more children growing up in deprived households. Is this the European Union’s (EU) only achievement of recent years? Should we not expect more from the EU?

EU governments have, in their majority, stuck blindly to the neo-liberal mantras of austerity and deregulation, pushing their people further into poverty and despair. All of this has been done without listening to the people concerned. How legitimate is it for the Troika to impose a “one size fits all” model of adjustment – based on cuts to social expenditure, cuts in public sector salaries, welfare and services, and deregulation of the labour market – on countries receiving financial assistance?

What’s the impact on the most vulnerable?

The social impact of the crisis has been much less documented than its impact on employment, meaning the hidden cost of the crisis and long-term effects are unfortunately totally underestimated. Lone parents, mostly women, are choosing between keeping warm and providing a balanced diet for their family. In the first semester of 2012, requests for food aid and general social support doubled in some countries, when compared to 2009. In Lisbon, about 20%
of clients of pharmacies (mainly women, unemployed and elderly people) did not fill their whole prescription due to costs. More people are being evicted from their homes.

Child poverty is growing, and many young people are being deprived of the possibility of even imagining a future.

More people are trapped by debt, as they face increasing living costs and a reduction in their income. So much so that companies are changing their marketing tactics. Child poverty is growing, and many young people are being deprived of the possibility of even imagining a future. Instability and uncertainty towards the future affect family dynamics, so it isn’t
surprising that domestic violence has increased

Working conditions are being eroded. Getting social support is more difficult than ever, with cuts in benefits and services, while NGOs plugging the gaps are facing the impossible task of helping more people than ever before but with less funding. 

Vulnerable people feel more and more stigmatised by public opinion, as if they were responsible for their situation and as if social support were a luxury in times of austerity. Such negative representations seem to underpin some public policies, including more conditionality imposed on job seekers.

Where is this leading us?

Is austerity this bitter medicine that will put EU member states quickly onto the road to growth, and allow them to spend more on social support later? Obviously not. On the contrary, these policies pave the way for future difficulties. Cuts in services undermine, in the long term, the levels of public health, education, and training we have been used to seeing. And reducing taxes on corporations undermines the financing of social security and other public resources further.

On top of this, the crisis is already bearing political and societal costs: a lack of trust toward political decision-making processes, and disaffection from the public space. We are also seeing a growing polarisation within societies and between EU countries, as well as social unrest and tensions. Intolerance and racism are on the rise as well.

It is no wonder that people are losing trust in the role of the EU. In 2010 Europe pledged to cut the number of people in poverty and social exclusion by 20 million by 2020. However, it looks like instead poverty is increasing: approximately four million more people were facing poverty and social exclusion in 2011 compared to 2010.

The EU must change gear now!

In order to tackle poverty now, what Europe needs is more ambition. It needs to stop defaulting on its commitment to mainstream adequate social protection and fight against social exclusion in all its policies and activities. The EU should remain a beacon for hope, not an institution that breaks its promises to European citizens. This is vital for the survival of the EU itself – future support depends on a firm balance between economic and social goals agreed democratically.

Member states urgently need to agree to challenge austerity collectively. They must defend universal social protection systems, pursue a balanced Europe 2020 growth strategy, and ensure Europe is moving steadily towards making sure all citizens have enough to live with dignity. Furthermore, the process of implementing any adjustment or growth policies within countries must be accountable.

Poverty and inequality in Europe are a political choice. But Europe can choose to change course now – choose to listen to its citizens and ensure the next few years do not turn into hopelessly lost decades.  

Read more

  • Download the full paper and 12 country case studies at
  • Read other blog posts on austerity and other blog posts on inequality
  • Main image: anti-austerity protest camp in Barcelona, May 2011. Credit: Libby Bounds/Oxfam

Author: Claire Champeix
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.