They Can Lie to Us and We Can Lie to Ourselves

Photo: MrsBrown Photo: MrsBrown

Many people who live in relative or real prosperity are not willing to acknowledge the fact that there is poverty, there is hunger. Many people have debated and discussed the details of the poverty statistics in numerous places.

“If there were that many poor people, we would live as they do in Africa…   every second person is poor? … Come on! The malls are full… every youngster has a smart phone in his hand… The roads are choking with expensive cars.”

All this is true. But one mustn’t imagine the poverty affecting almost half the population thinking that I am not poor but the person standing next to me is, the next one is not, but again his neighbour is. There are different types, layers of poverty.

What is visible and clear to everyone is extreme poverty. The majority of the poor live in segregation, these two things are connected. It is also strikingly clear that the deepest poverty affects the Roma. Not because they like to live like this or because they have no desire to fight poverty or because they do not want to work. Of course, these too exist. But even those who wish to do something against their poverty are unable to do so.  Because they live in the ghetto, are uneducated, grew up in terrible destitution, because they do not have such role models in the family. Because to start with they have a disadvantage due to the colour of their skin, because they do not have the money for the bus fare, because they have no access to information. Misery has locked them in; they can only concentrate on survival, one day at a time. But they are the visible ones: articles are written about them, they are photographed, filmed. A showcase of horror.

However, the vast majority of the poor are invisible. We do not know, we do not see their misery. They do not frequent the malls, they are not the ones who sit in the expensive cars, they are not the ones who fill their shopping carts to the brim at the weekend. Of course, it would be more spectacular if they were to appear in their worn out clothes among the fashionably dressed business men and young ones manipulating their smartphones, if they were to stand in the queue at the supermarket cash desk with their half pound of bread and count out the price from a plastic bag containing the small change collected during the week. If they were to push their cheap handcarts loaded with illegally collected, fallen tree branches among the shinning cars on the motorway. Stolen warmth. Because it is forbidden to collect twigs and fallen fruit. Must not be taken. Prohibited by law.

Many people are not visibly poor. They are poor in a silent, unremarkable way.  If we choose not pay attention or fail to observe and listen carefully, we do not even notice them.  Many claim that “In Hungary, no one is starving”. Now let us raise the ornate rug and look underneath.

Elderly people (mostly women) collect the “garbage” meant for them by the other residents and purposely placed on top of the real garbage in the waste bins of the housing estate.  Carefully packed bags containing bread, pasta, some apples, pieces of cheese, canned food and neatly folded, used clothes. They come on Thursday mornings, before the arrival of the garbage truck. They have homes, clothes and even some pension money. But, once they’ve paid for the utilities, their medication there is not enough left to live on.  They neither beg nor protest.  They are ashamed. During the winter, some of them will make the news.  “Hypothermia killed elderly lady in unheated flat”. “A couple froze to death”.

There are families where both parents work and they raise two children. Their combined income  amounts to 180 000 HUF (1 euro = approx.300 HUF), half the minimum for such a family.  This to cover utilities, the school canteen, rent, outgrown clothes and shoes that need replacement, school supplies. They just about make ends meet living a life of hard deprivation.  If this family has to repay a loan, they will certainly pay the price by malnutrition. They are not physically hungry (at least the kids aren’t), but are unable to buy food of sufficiently nutritious quality.

If you lose your job you can get unemployment benefit for a period of 36 to maximum 90 days.  Nothing beyond that.

There is also a grant provided by local governments, on social grounds, if you are unemployed; the amount is 22 800 HUF per month.

If the parents no longer have paid work, but they are lucky enough to have a place on the communal works program (only one person per family is entitled for a maximum of 10 months!) and they receive this form of support plus family allowance, their maximum income will be 120 000 HUF. Out of this they have to pay the utility bills, if they have a loan, the repayments and live off what little is left. For a family of four.

47% of families with children nationwide not only live below the poverty line, but have serious problems and are unable to buy sufficient food every month.

Many people are trapped. If they have a mortgaged flat or house or a loan for their car, they cannot sell any of these assets.  They have to keep meeting the loan repayments for as long as they can, otherwise the bank seizes the property or the car while the remaining debt repayments must still be made or paid in a lump sum. Even if there is nowhere to live anymore and the car is gone. The only solution is to pay off the loan in any which way possibleAlmost half of all families living in Hungary, that is about 4.3-4.4 million people live below the bread line. 3.2 million of them live in dire circumstances.

They are the invisible ones. Maybe they sit at a cash desk in a supermarket, they clean the corridors of public institutions, they drive the buses, sweep the streets, read the electricity meters. They might even teach our children.  It is also possible that we do not see them because they still have a home but no longer a job. They are not homeless, we do not cross them in the subways, they do not beg in the car parks.  They may have a television, they may have internet. The subscription can cost less than 2000 HUF, and they may have bought the computer when they still had a job and will continue to scrape together the monthly fees so that the children do not fall behind permanently, since without the internet it is now almost impossible to even study.

But this does not mean that they can buy meat, milk, fruit and vegetables.  The family which eats potato pasta one day, semolina pasta the next day, then brown roux soup the third and potato stew with paprika on the fourth is starving.  We do not see this, many of them are overweight from eating such an inadequate diet, yet starving. Qualitatively starving. This diet causes digestive, circulatory and numerous other health problems, but to change, to go for treatment, or take medication is not possible. They lack the means.

What we see is the homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk, the beggar. We see the photos of the donations brought to the slums by the aid organizations, the multigenerational families living in one room, the boundless, unspeakable poverty.

We do not see the misery of living in the apartment next door, we do not know that in the neighbouring village or just a street away they can’t heat, that dinner for the children consists of only a piece of bread and not even that for the parents. We also do not see that they use a gas cylinder to heat a basin of water for washing, that they wash clothes by hand in order not to use the electricity, that they have not been able to buy clothes, shoes for years.  We do not see this because this reality remains hidden within the walls of the home. The majority of these people do not receive any help.

The employment statistics show satisfactory data since people living without any provision are not included, the system has lost track of them. The communal works labourers, the persons working abroad and even those who have only worked for one (ONE!) day during the year appear as being employed in these falsified statistics.

In Hungary, 730 thousand children live in poverty. Out of this total, 170 thousand children are hungry every day. What possibility is there for these 730 thousand children to study? Poor diet, pathological iron deficiency alongside other vitamin deficiencies and a stimulus deprived environment is not conducive to spiritual, mental and physical development after all. We are talking about 43% of all children living in the country.

Yes, we can pretend that there is no problem, as if all this were a lie. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

For those who still do not understand, I will tell you a short story. A 50-year-old woman works in a kindergarten. Divorced, two teen-agers and a younger child live with her.  Salary, family allowance and child benefit amount to 140 thousand forints. Loan repayment 50 thousand. She heats just one room with firewood and repays the cost in instalments throughout the year. She pays the utility bills. The outgrown, outworn clothes she replaces from jumble sales. She buys a water melon once a year. One, for the three children.  Cannot afford any other fruit.  She can’t sell the house because you have to live somewhere. The property value and saleability is practically nil.  She doesn’t even dare to think about the necessary maintenance (a leaking roof, old doors and windows, cracked shower basin, broken fridge). So, she has a home, a job and 10 thousand forints per head per month for food. That’s 330 HUF per person per day. If she loses her job (which can happen any time), then that is the end of the story.

4.3-4.4 million people live like this or in even worse conditions.

The impact of the crisis, the rise in unemployment was accompanied by the destruction of the social system. Call it demagogy if you will, but money should not be spent on ornamental pavements, fountains, renaming squares or building stadiums, but on creating real jobs, education, health. The social safety net should not be smashed, but strengthened.

It may be possible to use make-up for a while, to embellish the false data of the growing trouble. But that does not solve anything, misery spreads and worsens and we will come face to face with it whether we want to or not.

They can lie to us; we can lie to ourselves. Reality will still come knocking on our doors soon enough.

Written by Edgar Swan 08/12/2016

Translated by A. Dabbous

Edited by Réka Eszter Szabó

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