UN expert slams ‘appallingly high’ poverty rates in Spain

Spain is "utterly failing" its poorest citizens who are living in some of the worst conditions in Europe, despite its strong post-recession recovery, a UN expert said on Friday.

UN expert slams 'appallingly high' poverty rates in Spain
Photos: AFP

Speaking at the end of a 12-day fact-finding mission, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston said he had visited areas “many Spaniards would not recognise as part of their country”.

“Spain is utterly failing people in poverty whose situation now ranks among the worst in the EU,” Alston wrote in the report, pointing to “shockingly high” levels of inequality within the country.

But at the same time, he hailed Spain's new leftwing coalition government as the “bright spot”, and its firm commitment “to achieving social justice”.


Speaking to reporters, Alston said he had met Roma people living on rubbish dumps, families fighting eviction or struggling with “the dilemma of heating or eating” and migrant workers living in “probably the worst conditions I've ever seen”.

“The levels of poverty that exist in Spain reflect a political choice that has been very clearly made over the past decade,” Alston told a news conference.

When the global property bubble burst in 2008, it sent shockwaves through the Spanish economy which fell into an almost five-year recession. It returned to growth in 2013 and since then its economic output has outpaced much of the rest of Europe.

But though Spain was thriving economically, the post-recession recovery had left many behind, the report found, pointing to deep widespread poverty, high unemployment, “a housing crisis of stunning proportions” and a completely inadequate social protection system.

Figures from the National Institute of Statistics (INE) show one in four people are at risk of poverty or social exclusion which, at 26.1 percent, is 5.0 percentage points above the average elsewhere in the European Union, while unemployment remains sky-high at 13.78 percent, more than double the EU average.

“The bottom line is that you get what you pay for: if the Spanish state is not investing in social protection, you get these types of statistics,” he said.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's government faced “daunting challenges” but it was critical it prioritised certain issues: national minimum income, tax reform and the housing crisis.

“With its embrace of social rights and fiscal justice and prioritisation of the most vulnerable, the new government's message is a welcome one, but its actions must live up to that rhetoric,” he wrote in the report.

Alston's final report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in June.

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Queuing for food handouts: How the pandemic has left thousands more going hungry in Spain

A year after the pandemic hit Spain, the need for food handouts has soared in the country, especially by workers in the sectors hit hardest by the economic crisis that followed.

Queuing for food handouts: How the pandemic has left thousands more going hungry in Spain
Reina Chambi, 39, queues to receive food aid outside San Ramon Nonato parish in Madrid. Photos: Oscar del Pozo/AFP

Although her face is covered by a black mask, Rita Carrasco still wears bright red lipstick. But her easy smile faltered when she had to join Madrid’s “hunger lines” for food aid.

“It was a hard moment. I felt shame,” says the 41-year-old Mexican, who lost her job as a theatre teacher when Spain’s tight lockdown began in March 2020.

Since then, she has not been able to find work and has used up all her savings.

Over the past year, the demand for food packages has soared in Spain, especially among those employed in sectors worst-hit by the resulting economic crisis.

Last year, the Catholic charity Caritas said it helped half a million people who had never before asked for food packages.

Since December, Carrasco (pictured above) has been going every Friday to a soup kitchen in Carabanchel, a working-class neighbourhood in southern Madrid, to collect a box of groceries.

She also helps distribute food as a volunteer.

“Giving and receiving changes your perspective,” she says.

Beans and fruit

Wearing yellow vests, the volunteers hand out fruit, cereal and beans at a church building to those lining up in a narrow street outside.

The neighbourhood has a high immigrant population and many in the queue are Latin American women.

People used to be able to eat a hot meal onsite, but virus restrictions now mean they can only serve food to take away.

It is one of four soup kitchens opened last spring by the Alvaro del Portillo charity.

Before the pandemic, there was only one, which served around 900 people.

Since then the number of people using the soup kitchens has soared to around 2,000.

“As the months have gone by, we’ve noticed things easing,” says Susana Hortigosa, who runs the charity.

“Although the level of demand is still higher than before the pandemic, it has dropped slightly because people have started getting their furlough payouts or have found a few hours of work” as the economy has picked up, although most still need help, she says.

The leftwing coalition government of Pedro Sanchez has unblocked €40 billion ($48 billion) since the start of the crisis to fund the furlough scheme.

But with the administration overrun with claims, it has often taken months for the payouts to materialise.

‘A great help’

Such was the case with Reina Chambi (pictured below), a 39-year-old carer for the elderly whose husband was employed at a hotel. When the pandemic hit, they were both left jobless.

“My husband stopped working completely and they took a long time to make the furlough payment so we had to turn to the church for help,” says the mother-of-two, waiting outside a soup kitchen in the freezing wind in the Vallecas district.

While the payout has given the family some breathing room, the couple are still jobless, meaning they still need food packages.

“It’s a great help because we don’t have to buy milk, chickpeas, noodles, those things at least. And we can spend (the payout) on detergent or meat,” says Chambi, who misses the “stable life” she enjoyed after arriving from Bolivia 15 years ago.

Even before 2019, official figures showed more than one in four people in Spain were at risk of poverty or social exclusion, one of the highest rates in Europe.

And the pandemic has left the most vulnerable even more at risk.

“It’s so frustrating. Each time I try to escape this situation, something else happens,” sighs Amanda Gomez, 53.

Divorced just before the pandemic, she is raising two children on her own, one with Down’s Syndrome, on a cleaner’s tiny salary.

But she’s not ready to give up — a keen cook, she’s looking up recipes online to “make the most” of the food she’s got, and she is also beginning to bake cakes to order and deliver them to people’s homes.

The hope is that one day she might be able to open her own bakery.

“You dream big because dreaming doesn’t cost anything,” she says.

“What I want is to be able to go to the local church without asking for anything. Just to help out.”