Here is the next episode of my podcast. This one is about some of the social and economic problems besetting Spain.
To listen on Apple Podcasts, click here:
See the transcript below:
I realize that I’ve spent the last few podcasts comparing Spain and the United States, usually to show how my own country is lagging behind. But I am afraid that I am painting an overly sunny picture of Spain. It’s not a paradise by any means. But I admit that it is a bit harder for me to talk about Spain’s shortcomings. Like most people, Spaniards are not overly keen on foreigners criticizing their country. And there is a long tradition of foreigners criticizing Spain. Spaniards sometimes refer to the leyenda negra (the “black legend”)—which is a tendency among historians to treat Spain as backward, cruel, conservative, and uncivilized.
As an example of this, many people know that the Jews were expelled from Spain. (This happened in 1492, under the reign of the Catholic monarchs. They were officially given a choice between conversion or exile, or death I suppose.) This is sometimes used as the basis for portraying Spain as particularly intolerant. But you may not know that, in the course of history, the Jews were expelled from nearly every European country, and sometimes multiple times. Of course, a multitude of wrongs doesn’t make a right. Intolerance is always bad. The point, however, is that Spain was not exceptional in its intolerance.
Well, I’m not here to talk about the black legend. Rather, I want to talk about some of the shortcomings of Spain’s economy now. Along with Portugal, Ireland, and Greece, Spain was among the EU countries that took a big hit during the 2008 financial crash. Recovery was long, painful, and slow. But Spain did turn itself around, and now has an economy well ahead of Greece’s, or Italy’s, or Portugal’s. Still, there is cause for concern. I can report some anecdotal evidence. During my time as a teacher, I’ve come across doctors, lawyers, and engineers who couldn’t find work, or at least couldn’t find good work. That’s concerning enough as it is—highly-skilled workers who can’t find a job?! And even now, over ten years later, unemployment is still alarmingly high. While it is now well below 5% in the United States, it is around 14% here. That’s huge. And unemployment among young people (below 25) is about double that. Obviously this is a huge problem for an economy.
I have a pretty distorted picture of Spain’s economy myself, since I work as an English teacher. In general, native English teachers are in high demand in the country, so for me finding a job could hardly be easier. You’re basically hired on the spot. So from my point of view Spain’s economy is just great. But of course, the reason why a lot people want to learn English in the first place is so they can work in international business. In other words, it’s a sign that the best business opportunities are not to be found within Spain itself. But why is this?
The main explanation I’ve heard for Spain’s economic sluggishness—and admittedly it’s an explanation from a particular ideological camp—is that the EU’s economic policies are to blame. For one, because it shares the euro with so many countries, Spain cannot control its own currency, which means it can’t exert the kind of control that the Federal Reserve uses to adjust the American economy. Another commonly-blamed culprit is the economic philosophy of the German-dominated European Union, which insisted on imposing austerity in response to the crisis, and it’s generally preoccupied with keeping the deficit smaller than some pre-ordained limits. Now, please don’t ask me to explain any of this in detail. For this, you can read Joseph Stiglitz’s book The Euro for more. (Or just read my review.) And also, please don’t think that I’m anti-European Union. I love my euros. All I’m saying is that there’s a reason so many young professionals go to Germany and that so many people are out of work. Something isn’t working right.
This very high youth unemployment rate, by the way, is a major reason why so many young Spaniards live with their parents for such a long time. It’s not just because Spanish men are mama’s boys—although that’s true, too—but often from economic necessity that people live with their parents until adulthood. I should also mention that Spain is suffering from the same economic maladies that we often complain about in the United States. Inequality is only growing, while social mobility is not high. According to an OECD report, it would take a low-income family four generations to reach the country’s average income. (What does that mean?) Like most places, if you’re born poor you’re likely to remain poor, and the same goes for people born rich. This is not the society most people want to create.
The most obvious evidence of Spanish poverty are the shanty-towns. For three years, on the bus ride to work, I could see what was unmistakably a shanty-town out my window. It was just like you see in pictures from the great depression: improvised shelters made of bits of metal and wood, all huddled together. This was a settlement on one of the old shepherding trails given a royal license back in the middle ages, called cañadas reales. According to El País, almost 8,000 people were living on this illegally developed land, although admittedly not all of them in a shanty-town. In fact, some of the houses belong to middle-class families; and this wouldn’t be the first time in Madrid’s history that an illegally developed land became a thriving neighborhood. But obviously many of the people living there are abjectly poor, without access to basic services or infrastructure.
For many years, you could also see a shanty town in a bit of undeveloped land behind Madrid’s railroad museum. The authorities were pretty slow in dealing with the situation. From what I’ve read, they came in, performed a census, and then tried to arrange public housing for the residents who qualified. Then, they came in and bulldozed the shelters. This happened in the cañadas reales, too, I believe. Even now, you can see bits of rubbish and blacked concrete left near the railroad museum.
Now, many of the people who were living in these shanty towns were ethnically Romani (they are often called “gypsy,” but that term is now considered offensive). The Romani area substantial ethnic minority in Spain, ultimately originating from India (though they left a long time ago). The word “gypsy,” by the way, comes from the word “Egyptian,” since this is where people thought they were from. Even though the Romani culture has had a great influence on the culture of Spain in general—particularly in the southern province, Andalusia—there is quite a bit of prejudice against the Romani people. They are imprisoned in huge numbers, and the vast majority are living below the poverty line. Many Spaniards are openly hostile to Romani people.
Admittedly the situation is quite complex, since the Romani are traditionally itinerant and thus tend to live outside of the norms of sedentary society. But as usually happens, it is difficult to say what is a cause and what is an effect. Are Romani pushed to the margins by choice, or is it a reaction against the prejudice of society? I suppose you’d have to ask an anthropologist. But I think it’s fair to say that the poor living conditions of so many Romani—and there are over one million in the country—is one of Spain’s most obvious social problems.
Another sort of person often pushed to the margins are migrant workers. Just last week, Philip Alston, an ambassador from the United Nations, visited a migrant workers’ camp in Huelva, in the south of Spain. What he found was yet another shanty town, with people living in what he describes as some of the worst conditions he’d ever seen in Europe. Here’s a little quote from an article in El País: “people cook by the light of their cell phones, fetch water from a tap two kilometers away and store it in plastic bottles that were once used for weedkiller. They shower outdoors with water heated on a stove, and go to the bathroom in the field.” Now keep in mind that some of these people have been living like this for a decade. They are agricultural temp workers, some of them without work permits, who make about six euros a day.
Not too far away from Huelva, in the province of Almeria, there is a huge conglomeration of green houses—so many that you can easily see it from space. (Just try it using Google’s satellite view.) This used to be totally arid land, but the greenhouses have made it incredibly productive. In fact, this relatively small space provides a big chunk of Europe’s fresh produce. But conditions inside the greenhouses are so brutal that the labor is mostly done by migrant laborers from Africa or Eastern Europe; and just like in Huelva, many of these workers live in slums and shanty towns, making much less than the minimum wage. Thirty percent of the workers are undocumented. Now, you can talk about illegal immigrants taking jobs all you want, but the fact is that Spaniards don’t want these jobs. And Europeans are happy to have cheap fruits and vegetables. But someone is paying for those cheap prices. It’s these migrants who are being exploited, and who live and work in unsafe conditions.
To round out this picture of the economic and social woes of Spain, I also have to mention the depopulation of the interior. Many villages in Spain are emptying out. In the least densely populated area in Spain—in the mountains between Cuenca, Guadalajara, and Teruel—the population density is less than it is in Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland. For years, the whole province of Extremadura has been struggling. Almost half of the people in Extremadura are living on less than 700 euros a month. It’s no surprise, then, that young people are trying their best to move into the cities. Meanwhile, in the cities, decent housing is getting harder and harder to find. Rents perpetually rise. Partially this is because so many houses are purchased at a high price and then mostly left empty by wealthy people. According to El País, there are almost three and a half million properties left empty. That’s pretty crazy to think about, when you keep in mind the people living in shanty towns on the edges of the city. In fact, the current socialist government is trying to create legislation to solve this problem.
Well, so there you go. That’s the best I can do in talking about the shortcomings of Spanish society. A sluggish economy, lots of people out of work, inequality and a lack of social mobility, and lots of people living on the margins of society. But I do want to end this podcast on a less gloomy note. As even the UN ambassador noted, Spain’s public healthcare system is working quite well, achieving universal coverage. An immigrant named Eva Costizo recently shared a “symbolic” invoice of what her medical bill would have been had there not been public healthcare. To an American that’s hard to fathom, someone publicly celebrating not paying a medical bill. Meanwhile, I just saw an article in the NYTimes about a person who received a “surprise” medical bill for $145,000. So I don’t think we have much to be gloating about.