In 2009 there were 115 million people at risk of poverty and social exclusion in the lands of the twenty-seven member states (23.1% of the population) – "not counting another 100 or 150 million on the razor's edge" says Nuno. "Two months of unemployment and carrying a mortgage at the same time can sink anyone." In 2007, 85 million Europeans (17% of the population) were below the relative poverty line. The list includes countries like Greece, Spain and Ireland, "but also France, Germany and Austria," Nuno notes.
The examples show how the system breaks down: household debt; the bankruptcies of states that gave out subsidies too freely; and the profusion of casual and uncertain jobs, like the millions lost in the construction sector in Spain.
How is the hardship measured? There are two types of poverty: moderate or relative (60% of the average national income), and severe (40%). "Most of the poor are increasingly found far below this threshold. The poor have become poorer, but it is also true that the soup kitchens are feeding people who never dropped in on them before. The poverty rates have gone up dramatically in children – one of every four Spanish children is in poverty – and quite a lot among immigrants and the young," says sociologist Paul Mari-Klose of the CSIC.
"We are talking about deprivation, of being unable to make it to the end of the month, or eating meat less than twice a week. In Spain, as in Greece, Portugal and Italy, however, it's not so much that poverty has spread into new classes, but that it has become more severe and focused in certain groups. During the economic boom many young people struck out on their own prematurely, and now they're in borderline situations. Iceland has seen a dramatic increase in poverty, especially in children," Mari-Klose adds.
In the Eurostat statistics on poverty and exclusion the crisis is bringing countries like Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain closer to eastern European countries that recently joined the EU and to ever broader layers of the populations of stable states and model welfare states that have come down in the world, as in Iceland, due to the collapse of its banking system.
But the EU average on poverty has a high dispersion around the mean. Bulgaria (46.2%) and Romania (43.1%) are almost double the mean, according to Eurostat. At the other extreme are the Czech Republic (14%), the Netherlands (15.1%) and Sweden (15.9%). Spain is in the middle, at 23.4%. But being in the middle ground is to go unnoticed: for Spain the structural risk (in 2007, about 20%), the lack of social protection, and record unemployment (22.8%) all add up to a less than rosy future.
As social spending cuts amplify the effects of the crisis, the four social groups traditionally more exposed to poverty – children, the elderly, women, and immigrants, i.e., age, gender and ethnicity as factors that intensify poverty – are joined by a host of citizens not so easily labelled.
These are "people with a very precarious job, which makes it hard to make ends meet, and on top of that they have no support; people between 30 and 45, with or without family responsibilities, and getting no subsidies because they have some income. If they want to keep paying the mortgage, they're forced to go back to their parents," says Joan Subirats, of the Autonomous University of Barcelona. "The other sectors are more closely studied. These lower middle classes, however, have not been in the spotlight," he adds.