Social spending cuts leave country’s most vulnerable fearing for food and shelter

Story by Kelsey Luing

SALAMANCA — Jose Luis Martin Halgado considers himself one of the lucky ones. The former construction worker, who lost his job in 2009, was recently given part-time work after putting in long hours at the food bank near his home.


Jose Luis Martin Halgado (right), 40, has been working part-time at the Food Bank of Salamanca since losing his job as a construction worker in 2009. Photo by Maria Amasanti.

“Before, the government would help out [people without jobs], but that isn’t the case anymore,” he said at the start of his five-hour shift. “I try to put on a brave face for the children, but it’s been difficult.”

Halgado, 40, is not alone in his struggle. In fact, the father of two is just one of millions of Spanish citizens who have fallen victim to an overburdened, underfunded system that has made budget reductions to public expenditures in the midst of widespread unemployment and an expanding underclass. These cuts, which dipped into medical care, education and social services, were put in place in 2012 as part of an effort to shrink Spain’s growing budget deficit. But experts fear that the rollbacks have pushed the nation’s underprivileged over the edge to the point that they’re losing their homes, their ability to feed their families and their dignity.

“They are doing it in the worst possible way because it’s [indiscriminate],” said José Garcia-Montalvo, about how all social services – even those for the most needy – have been cut. A professor of economics at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Garcia-Montalvo said that the government is fixing its problems at the expense of the country’s most vulnerable. “You have to take the time to find the expenses that are ineffective and cut those, not make them across the board.”

The measures amounted to 53 billion euros in savings, or more than $72 billion, which was an 8.9 percent reduction in spending overall.

Garcia-Montalvo is particularly attuned to the result, which is a widening gap between the rich and the poor.

“Because the government did not discriminate, the effect [on the unemployed population] has been dramatic,” he said. “My only hope is that figures of unemployment are not really accurate. Otherwise, the society of Spain may not be able to function much longer.”

Currently, more than one-fourth of Spain’s population remains unemployed and, out of 47 million people, more than 20 percent are living below the poverty line. Meanwhile, the 20 percent of the population who pay the highest rent have not been affected because they use private services.

Ramon Martínez, 61, a longtime Salamanca resident and former pilot for Iberia Lineas Aereas de España, has witnessed the people’s hardship firsthand. Volunteer coordinator for the Food Bank of Salamanca, he scouts supplies for the pantry-style facility on the outskirts of the Old City in a modest neighborhood known as “Bridge of Bricks.”

“The amount of money that the government owes may be improving with the austerity cuts, but the people are still hurting because services to them have been slashed,” Martínez said.


Jose Luis Martin Halgado, 40, has been working part-time at the Food Bank of Salamanca, where 14,000 people went last year to supplement their pantries. Photo by Maria Amasanti.

Although the food bank has received funding from the government, it is not nearly enough to feed the 14,000 residents a year who turn to the organization for food. And, while the amount of provisions donated has increased exponentially, Martínez said this only masks the problem because what people such as his colleague Halgado really need are jobs.

“You can feed these people, but – in the long run – that won’t help them,” Martínez said. “There are a lot of unemployed people and a real lack of opportunities available.”

To combat the increasing number of people who need services, the Red Cross of Salamanca has formed Now More Than Ever, a program that provides guidance and counseling to people whose skills are no longer appropriate for the jobs they are seeking. This is necessary because one of the government’s cuts has been to job training programs, said Rocío Cruz, a 32-year-old spokeswoman for the agency.

“At the Red Cross, our objective is to access the people who the government doesn’t,” she said. “We need to attend [to the] people that the government can’t. ”

Yet Cruz admitted that new skills won’t change people’s lives if they can’t get jobs. “We are trying to give them skills so they are prepared for the moment there are jobs for everyone, whenever that may be,” she said.

Halgado, for his part, thinks the future is bleak. With two teen-aged girls – one of whom is starting college in the fall and the other, high school – he worries not only about his own job prospects but theirs as well.

“They’re going to school, but I worry later that they might end up working as a hairdresser or in a supermarket after investing all that time,” he said. “I hope they will find a good job, but there just aren’t any.”

And Halgado knows this better than anyone. For five solid years, he has struggled to pay bills. His wife is a maid – which allows them to keep their home – but his inability to pull in a constant and livable salary has taken an enormous toll on him and his family. In his most desperate moments, he’s taken odd jobs for people around his neighborhood – painting, fixing up houses – but those are always under the table and unable to sustain him.

He cannot see through this. He knows he has it better than others, who are losing their homes and begging for help, but he also feels this is no way for an honest man with a respectable family to live.

“There is more and more unemployment around us,” he said from the food bank, where he was unpacking rice from a mountain of donated boxes. “I feel, if anything, that the situation is getting worse.”


About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.

Posted on May 16, 2014, in Reporting from Salamanca and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s