"Social policies are designed for the middle classes, not for the lower ones"

In 2019 there were six million people in Spain who Cáritas includes in the epigraph “insecure society”. Translated into the language we all know, it means that six million people perform tightrope walks in their lives on a daily basis and face such fragility that a substantial change in their lives —sentimental breakup, loss of employment, of housing—would make them fall into social exclusion. It was a Spain that did what it could, supported by pins and fighting not to fall off the rope. But the pandemic came and threw them all at once.

Raul Flores He is coordinator of Studies of Cáritas Spain. He smiles when he is warned that he represents an institution that at times has been seen as fascist and now has its communist point. He smiles and shuts up because he prefers to talk about lives that are foreign. Because we can only understand what we know. And that’s why he talks about the consequences of inequality and how we seem destined to increase the social fracture if we don’t get out of our bubble. Only in this way would we stop calling aid payments and blaming the other for their situation. As if the merits achieved, he says, were not also thanks to the help of others.

Photo: Jesús Hellín.

It’s not enough that in Spain there are eight million poor, it states. You also have to know what lies behind those lives. And to the precariousness that accompanies them now is added the increase in the digital divide and the imperfections of social protection measures such as ERTEs and the Minimum Vital Income.

QUESTION. When Caritas and other third-sector institutions are mentioned in the news, it is because they put their finger on several sores. You warn, alert, urge… How many times have you been called doomsayers?

ANSWER. For us it is important to point out the degree of connection and disconnection of people. Many of those who receive a paycheck at the end of the month, who have their car at the door, a warm house, those who have taken care of their daily routine, are often incapable of knowing and approaching another reality lived by others who have nothing of that. Those for whom every day is a struggle to move forward.

When you are not close to that reality, it seems to you that it does not exist, and that is one of the functions that we have in Cáritas: to provide the population with information about other lives. You have to illuminate the situations that are in the dark, it is not enough just to be next to the most vulnerable.

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Q. The most vulnerable always regret being invisible to the rest…

R. It is that what we do not see we cannot understand or want. In recent years, the tendency to blame the other who is different from us for what is happening to them has increased. This blame almost always has its origin in ignorance.

P. And in the prejudices.

R. Well, there are prejudices that we all have and that are reasonable. But when you get close, they are filed down and end up falling off. When Caritas warns and points out inequality or injustice, it tries to go further. It is not just about saying that in Spain there are eight million poor people, we know their names and surnames.

That is why we know that before March 2020, living conditions in Spain had already begun to worsen. In 2019 we warned that there was a part of society, which we call insecure, to which any substantial change could cause them to fall on the side of social exclusion. We are talking about six million people. But this crisis caused by the pandemic has accelerated everything.

We already know the economic consequences of the coronavirus, but unfortunately it has also deepened social polarization, with the inability of public policies to compensate for increasingly intensified inequalities. Have new things been created? Few. We are not knowing how to respond as a country, neither as an administration nor as citizens. If we have a society where we measure everything by economic success, we are leaving people behind.

Photo: Jesús Hellín.

P. Is it possible to establish a robot portrait of inclusion or is it an increasingly liquid term?

R. Let me talk to you first about meritocracy. When we state that everything we have achieved and what we are is due exclusively to our own merits, it is totally inaccurate and unfair, because much of what we are is due to others, especially our families and the rest of the network that surrounds us. has helped: colleagues, friends, bosses. Two thirds do not belong to us.

I tell you this because just as the merit is not only ours, when we seek failure we also attribute it completely to ourselves, as if it were because we have not done what we had to do. This is causing many people to suffer, because in addition to living poorly they receive the judgment of society, the stigma. And we are a long way from overcoming it.

It is true that many of us can fall into exclusion, but in the case of homeless people, for example, it is difficult for us to fall because many of us have barriers that will stop us. I have my parents, my brothers, my friends… they are people. Even if I lose my job, my partner, my home, there are networks that will pull us. But there are people who do not have that social capital, and if they fall they hit the ground.

P. But today work does not guarantee a decent life, and from precariousness to exclusion there is not much distance…

R. It is true that more and more of the population is exposed to this situation because there are more and more elements that were integrators before that are no longer. You mentioned the job, and it’s true. But also the unemployment benefit had levels of protection years ago that it no longer has, so we have opted for individualism. Create a pension plan just in case, savings insurance… we are promoting individual responses to social problems. An unemployment benefit, by the way, that is designed just as the labor market worked in the 80s and 90s, with long contribution careers and more or less long periods of unemployment. But now people constantly enter and leave that labor market, they have precarious and often partial contracts. And people eat 30 days and pay rent twelve months of the year.

There is one thing that I find interesting. Poverty in Sweden before social transfers, before the administration collects taxes and generates social protection, is higher than in Spain. We have poverty levels of origin lower than them. What happens then? That Sweden, once these social transfers have been made, reduces it a lot. When we do it, the impact is much less. It is necessary to reorient social policies to the lower layers, because they are designed for middle layers.

Photo: An electric turret.  (EFE/Eliseo Trigo)
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Q. The policy fails, then…

R. It is a problem that has to do with political decisions. For example, let’s talk about family and parenting. Spain is one of the countries that least protects them, and why is it important to do so? Because everything you invest in children and adolescents are elements that you protect in the future. You are offering them more opportunities, better education, and you are investing in something that will be profitable for you in the rest of their life stages.

The middle class in which I participate has many non-visible tax benefits, because we can always deduct some little thing. And all of that is fine and allows you to feel involved in the system. However, there are no such benefits in the lower classes. Just as the design of a minimum income for those who have nothing is questioned, we could also question the generation of tax relief for a middle class that still needs them a little less.

Q. As your friends of tax cuts listen to you…

R. I am not suggesting that we forget the social layers, what I am saying is that we must rebalance and protect those who need it most. That is also justice. We are not aware of how much talent we are blocking and we are preventing it from developing that could benefit not only his life, but that of the rest.

Because equal opportunities cannot be reduced to everyone having the same rights and access to compulsory education. That is only the beginning. Since she was four years old, my daughter speaks English with a private teacher, I also know the language and from time to time, just like my wife, we have time to help her with her homework for that subject. But my daughter has a classmate who has never had a private teacher, her parents work all day and they don’t know the language. We do not have the same equal opportunities.

Photo: Jesús Hellín.

Q. In the 2021 Foessa Foundation report they talk about the consequences of the digital divide on inequality.

R. The problem with this crisis is that we have lost the alternatives to digital. Before, there was always a face-to-face door and sometimes a digital one. But the covid forced us to take digital and that caused problems for many; for my parents, who don’t have studies and don’t know how to do it, but also for other people.

There are three keys to open that door: skills, devices and connections. If any fail, you can not access. Many of the people that we accompany from Cáritas often fail all three. People who need to go to social services and they are closed, and who at most have a cell phone. This has caused many children to lose educational opportunities, lose job opportunities… it is a new factor of exclusion. That is why we cannot close the face-to-face door, because it is still the safe place for many people. Perhaps in 50 years we can do without it; not today.

In the 2008 recession, social benefits for the vulnerable were cut. In this crisis there has been a different strategy, and it has been decided to expand those protection budgets. That reaction seems better, because that way the crisis doesn’t have such an impact. But having said this, a good part of these policies have served to protect vulnerable layers, but not the especially poor. The ERTE have protected almost 3.5 million people and have prevented many people and many companies from falling. However, barely 2% of the people that we accompany from Cáritas have been protected by the ERTE. They have been fired, or directly had no contract.

P. You also talk about the imperfections of the Minimum Vital Income.

R. The IMV is focused on that lower layer of society, but several things have failed. In the first place, a design that left out many of the groups that most need it. It is true that over time it has been improving, but there is room. Secondly, coordination between the different administrations has failed, and some have cut the minimum income. This has given rise to cases in which families have been left without that income and waiting to see if they were given the IMV or not. Thirdly, there are territories where living standards allow you to do things with that amount, but in Barcelona, ​​Madrid and Bilbao it does not even allow you to pay for housing. And lastly, there are certain groups (migrants, or those with an irregular administrative situation, for example), who once again are left out of these protection schemes.

Photo: A block of flats in Barcelona.  (EFE/Alberto Estevez)
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P. What goes through your head when you hear about paguita?

R. When there are people who argue that the IMV and even an ERTE is a small payment, they are not being aware of how these people and families live, how they make an effort on a day-to-day basis. They only see one part, which is to receive support because at that time they have no other source of income. The vast majority of families that have the IMV would exchange it that same day for a stable job that would ensure a certain prosperity. Are we going to blame them?

Recently I was talking with a family that receives minimum rent and I asked them how they felt when someone accused them of receiving that, a small payment. “I’d trade it for a month,” they replied. Let’s see how you or I are able to live with 570 euros, two adults and two minors. That is not living, it is surviving.

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