Crisis-stricken Greece observes rise in social inequality

After six consecutive years of brutal recession, with homeless and unemployment rates skyrocketing, Greek society is experiencing an “unheard-of fragmentation”, made worse by fierce austerity measures, experts say.

Battered by the eurozone’s three-year debt crisis and four years of austerity, Greece has the highest unemployment rate in the 27-nation European Union, with more than one in four people out of work.

And this economic crisis has now transformed into a social emergency, according to UN expert on debt and human rights, Cephas Lumina.

During a recent visit to the country, Lumina said there had been “an estimated 25 percent increase in the country’s homeless population since 2009” and the poverty rate for under-17s was close to 44 percent.

“Adjusted for inflation and using 2009 as the fixed poverty threshold, more than one out of three Greeks (38 percent) had already fallen below the poverty line in 2012,” he estimated.

Drastic spending cuts imposed by the country’s international creditors in exchange for multi-billion-euro bailouts has made a difficult situation even worse, many believe.

One of 13,000 people demonstrating on traditional May Day marches, Yannis Papageorgiou, a teacher specialised in special needs children, said austerity had pushed the country back to levels of care last seen in ancient times.

“With the budgetary measures, handicapped children in Greece are being abandoned, like they were in the days of Ancient Sparta,” said Papageorgiou.

Another protester, trained archeologist Eleni Mlouke, who has been out of work for two years, said that even a top-level education was no guarantee of progress in today’s Greece.

“Having a degree in Greece means no work in the future,” complained the 28-year-old.

Economic pressures have meant that Greek society is experiencing an “unheard-of fragmentation”, economist Dionysis Balourdis told AFP, with output shrinking by some 20 percent during the six years of recession.

“The middle class has shrunk and is getting close to the poverty line, while the poor are getting poorer, which makes the inequality worse,” said the expert.

According to EU data, Greece ranks close to the bottom of the bloc in terms of poverty, with only Spain, Romania and Bulgaria worse off.

Lumina said that what he termed “excessively rigid” austerity measures were endangering citizens’ “right to work, social security, healthcare and housing.”

Prompted partly by the election of a new prime minister in Italy, who has vowed to reverse the austerity policy in the eurozone, opponents of the German-led insistence on budgetary rigour have started to find their voice again.

“Instead of strengthening the social welfare net and making it comprehensive, priority appears to have been accorded to fiscal consolidation at the expense of the people,” Lumina charged.

Throttled by economic crisis, Greece is now lacking the “social tools indispensable in the battle against extreme poverty,” said Katerina Poutou, head of the Greek branch of the European anti-poverty network.

Greece was obliged by its EU and International Monetary Fund creditors to slash its minimum wage to 570 euros ($747) in 2012.

On Friday, the European Commission offered a ray of hope to the Greek economy, saying a recovery was expected “by the end of the year, supported by improved confidence and the return of liquidity.”

Nevertheless, the economy is predicted to crawl slowly out of recession, achieving a sluggish 0.6-percent growth in 2014.

Even the Greek family, traditionally a solid grounding in times of crisis, “is no longer able to act as an economic refuge,” noted lawyer and researcher Nikos Georgarakis.

“Inequality could lead to a social explosion,” he warned.

“For the time being, the fact that leaders have placed the burden of the crisis on to the people has broken society, which cannot react with a single voice,” said Georgarakis.