The Spanish government’s efforts to tackle the economic turmoil unleashed by the Covid pandemic were “too little, too late and too few”, according to a report that finds thousands of people are still reliant on emergency food aid and facing even greater hardship as prices soar.
The Human Rights Watch study, which documents cases of parents skipping meals so their children can eat, says the pandemic has revealed and exacerbated weaknesses in Spain’s social security system. All too often, food banks, community groups and NGOs have had to step in and help people in need – particularly those in informal work who were not eligible for state help.
According to the report, which comes as a seventh wave of Covid sweeps across Spain, pandemic poverty has disproportionately affected families with children, older people dependent on state pensions, migrants and asylum seekers, and people working in the hospitality, cleaning, care and construction sectors.
It notes that data from Spain’s main food bank network shows a 48% increase in the amount of food distributed in 2020 compared with the previous year, leading to the highest levels of food aid provided since 2014, when the global financial crisis pushed the country’s unemployment rates to above 25%.
“The economic storm that came with the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the lives of people on low incomes in Spain, leaving households unable to afford food, even before the current cost of living crisis,” said Kartik Raj, a Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Government efforts to supplement an inadequate social safety net have offered too little, too late and too few, meaning thousands of people still rely on emergency food aid, and parents are skipping meals so their kids can eat.”
The Spanish government used furlough and a minimum vital income (IMV) scheme with monthly payments of between €451 and €1,015 (about £380 and £850), but the report says the crisis laid bare old and systemic failings.
“Despite efforts to provide support, the Spanish state failed to protect people’s rights to food and an adequate standard of living during the pandemic,” it says. “This failure was exacerbated by a social security system which was uneven in coverage depending on region and type of benefit, and a largely absent national social security and assistance system (beyond non-contributory pensions) prior to the pandemic.”
Many of the people interviewed for the report in Madrid and Barcelona described coping strategies they had adopted in order to survive the ravages of the pandemic.
“Sometimes I didn’t have money so would have to ask for help and food from friends,” said Ana María Ametller Hueto, 42, from Barcelona, who lost her restaurant job and did not receive furlough payments.
“I went hungry during the pandemic, but my daughter never did. You know if you have a child you can go for two or three days without eating so your child can eat. You’ll make whatever excuse you need to. Whatever we had – if it was macaroni or something else – was for her. I made do with a coffee or a glass of milk.”
Among the report’s conclusions are recommendations that the Spanish government should review social security support rates, including unemployment payments and age-related pensions, and speed up and streamline the process of helping people who need IMV support.
It says the IMV programme is preventing or at least delaying a return to the poverty and inequality levels seen in Spain at the height of the financial crisis, but the system is “hampered by its own bureaucracy which has been overwhelmed by demand, onerous paperwork requirements for applicants, and flawed assumptions for eligibility calculation, among other problems”.
It calls on the regional governments of Madrid and Catalonia to temporarily lift any barriers that stop people accessing emergency social security support in times of crisis on the grounds of their immigration status or residency.
“The Spanish government’s measures to blunt the edges of the financial shock that followed the public health emergency, however well intentioned, have not staved off growing hunger,” said Raj. “Spain needs a coordinated, well-funded social protection system that ensures people who need such support can live in dignity, have their rights protected, and are not left to live hand to mouth.”
The reports findings echo those of Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, who visited Spain in early 2020. Alston found that Spain remained riven by “deep, widespread poverty” and that its social assistance system was “broken, underfunded, impossible to navigate and not reaching the people who need it most.”
On Tuesday Spain’s Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, announced temporary taxes on banks and energy companies designed to bring in €7bn over two years, and unveiled a series of measures designed to help people endure inflation and the cost of living crisis.
“I’d like the people of Spain to know that I’m fully aware of the daily difficulties that most people have,” he said. “I know salaries cover less and less and that it’s difficult to get to the end of the month.”
In May the government approved a cap on gas prices to lower electricity bills for households, businesses and industry.
July 14, 2022 at 10:21AM Sam Jones in Madrid