AFP – Crushed by an austerity squeeze and towering unemployment, millions of Europeans joined the ranks of the newly poor in 2012 in a crisis that showed no mercy for the old, women or children.
An arc of misery spread pitilessly across southern Europe’s middle classes, engulfing bailed-out nations Greece and Portugal and tottering heavyweights such as the eurozone’s number four economy, Spain, and number three, Italy.
“The black hole is getting bigger and bigger,” fretted Mercedes Gonzalez, a 52-year-old Spaniard who has less than 800 euros ($1,000) a month to raise her unemployed family in the Madrid suburb of Fuenlabrada.
In July, she was still pocketing the monthly state aid of 426 euros for the long-term unemployed. But the benefit was slashed to 360 euros last month, she said, and in the meantime a September 1 rise in sales tax lifted the price of food and other regular bills.
“Things are really getting worse, we can’t breathe already,” said the energetic unemployed saleswoman whose voice betrayed weariness as she contemplated caring for herself, her carpenter husband and two of her three adult sons, all out of work.
Spain is displaying all the signs of a major social crisis, with one in four workers unemployed, an unprecedented austerity squeeze by the state, cuts to education and healthcare, and thousands of indebted families thrown out of their homes and into the streets.
In this country, where two home owners threatened with eviction recently committed suicide, as in other southern European nations such as Greece and Italy, the economic crisis is sowing implacable despair.
In Italy, the fate of an unemployed bricklayer who was being chased for unpaid taxes moved the entire country.
Giuseppe Campaniello set himself ablaze outside a tax office at the end of March and died after nine days of agony.
“You can’t expect a self-employed bricklayer to pay taxes even for the months when he is not working. The state beats you up and Giuseppe paid the consequences,” his 48-year-old widow said Tiziana Marrone from Bologna in central Italy told AFP.
“Giuseppe was not helped out. He felt he had his back to the wall. That morning he had to go to a criminal hearing for his taxes. It should have never got to that. We all make mistakes but he never stole from anybody!” she said.
“His was also a protest. Our laws drove him to it. It wasn’t a suicide linked to the crisis, it was state-sanctioned murder,” she said.
Marrone herself is now in a desperate situation as she has inherited her husband’s massive debts and lives on an allowance of 450 euros a month. She is forced to rely on handouts from her pensioner mother to survive.
In Greece, the crisis delivered another fatal blow.
In April, a 77-year-old chemist shot himself in the head leaving a note that accused the government of stripping him of the resources to live.
In Greece, where the unemployment rate is the highest among industrialised nations at 25.4 percent in August, the crisis has hit people harder than any other nation in southern Europe: 31 percent of its inhabitants were at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 2011 compared to a European Union average of 24.2 percent.
George Tsouvalakis, a 31-year-old jobless carpenter, and his 30-year-old wife, Lia, are among a “lost generation” of thirty-somethings sacrificed by the crisis.
With their two-year-old daughter, Angelina, they are trying to leave the country but cannot afford the plane ticket. Their income fell from 2,500 euros a month before the crisis to between zero and 400 euros.
“We should not remain in the country anymore, that is what I see. But we don’t have the financial capability to leave this country. That is our problem or else we would have already left,” Lia said.
In Portugal, too, where 24.4 percent of the population is estimated to be at risk of poverty or exclusion, the crisis has mortgaged the futures of many young people.
After completing a master’s degree in dramatic arts at the prestigious Coimbra University, 29-year-old Nilce Carvalho could not pick up her diploma because of the debts she had built up since the hard-up government slashed her grant from 400 euros to 98 euros.
To escape her debts, the young woman launched a public appeal on Facebook, overcoming “a kind of shame”.
“There are lots of young qualified people in our country but there is just no work for us,” Carvalho said.
Across southern Europe, humanitarian groups are confronting rampant poverty in all its guises.
“These are families in which every member of working age is out of work, people who lost their home because they were evicted, who are not used to turning to social protection networks,” said Fernando Cuevas, spokesman for the Spanish Red Cross.
“Where is the middle class today in Spain?” asked David Polo, who looks after the homeless for Caritas in Burgos, a northern Spanish town. “It’s breaking up. We are starting to see a polarisation of this class.”
Humanitarian groups are especially worried about women and children.
The UN children’s fund UNICEF estimated there were 2.2 million children living below the poverty line in Spain. In Portugal, the education ministry has sounded the alarm because in the space of just 20 days the number of pupils lacking food leapt from 10,000 to 13,000.
Even pensioners, some of them looking after entire families, are no longer safe: the right-leaning government in Spain has announced that the rise in retirement pensions will be less than had been expected in 2013, breaking an oft-repeated electoral promise.
And on Sunday, thousands of doctors and other health workers took to the streets of Madrid to decry government plans to privatise some health services.