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Facing Poverty

Post-Bailout Welfare: New Landscapes of Poverty in Greece

Poverty is painted on the walls of vacated homes while sleeping on the streets becomes a daily reality for many people. Credit: Vassilis Arapoglou.

December 04, 2018

After eight years of imposed harsh austerity, the Greek government anticipated the post-bailout era and promoted its “Growth Strategy for the Future,” a plan that was negotiated with the Eurogroup, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund together with discussions over enhanced forms of fiscal surveillance following the exit from financial assistance programs. The plan underlines the Greek ownership of the reforms and attempts to bring into the agenda the priorities for “fair and inclusive growth.”

This brief note assesses the plan’s claims to policy success by placing them within a wider time-space framework and by contrasting them to the findings of my recent research on poverty in Greek cities. The “post-bailout” talk may be considered as a distinctive moment towards “post-welfare,” a strategy of decentralization of social provisions, progressing at a different pace in many countries globally, and adopted by the European Commission to ameliorate labor market deregulation and the contraction of social entitlements. Post-welfare involves the reshaping of local state, market, and civil society relationships in the design of social safety nets and social inclusion programs. The decentering of social policy responsibilities creates a political arena for competing strategies. On the one hand, a neoliberal strategy aims at transforming local and voluntary agencies, and their clients, into human capital investors and responsible consumers of social services. On the other, progressive strategies aim at countering this top-down project of subsuming welfare and the civil society to the rules of the market. Advocacy coalitions aim at integrating the knowledge and claims of grassroots initiatives, enabling them to access local assets and funding to develop their activities in new fields like health and social care, housing, the digital economy, and urban ecology.

In Greece, the first two bailout agreements constituted a deliberate attempt to devalue the labor power and the assets of the working people. The dramatic deterioration of living conditions which began in 2010 has been halted during the last two years, but this situation cannot be fully repaired given the way European capitalism is currently organized. The poverty rate in 2016, when calculated by the standards of 2008, is close to 50%. This actually means that half of the Greek population lives in poverty if we use the standards of 2008 in the country. But even if one uses the current income standards, almost half of the population aged less than 25 years is either poor, severely deprived, or unemployed. Part-time work among young people has exploded: one out of four employees under 25 works part-time and one out of five falls into the ranks of the working poor. Greece has exited the bailout agreements with increased inequality and about half of its young population in an impoverished or precarious living condition. New poverty most of all has affected the younger generations, immigrants, and city dwellers.


Findings from recent research (as shown in my recent book Contested Landscapes of Poverty and Homelessness in Southern Europe: Reflections from Athens that I co-wrote with Kostas Gounis) illustrate how stopgap measures have dominated local anti-poverty policies. The introduction of a “social solidarity income” scheme has been assigned a central role in the devolution of social services but income assistance is meagre and subject to many conditions in a harsh workfarist manner. Depleted of resources, local and civil agencies have been forced to redesign social inclusion so as to attract private funding. It should be emphasized that the bailout programs did not only dismantle already feeble and inadequate forms of support but also shaped a specific trajectory towards privatizing public provisions and enabling charity.

What was most upsetting was the finding that an artificial division was often made between the “new poor,” the ones the lay middle class citizen could identify with (since they represented the risk of a common fate of destitution), and the marginalized others – drug addicts, the mentally ill, illicit migrants, and people on the move. In this respect, a pitfall of local policy responses has not only been their failure to address material destitution, but also the inscription of symbolic divisions amongst the destitute as a means to avoid guilt and fear.

In contrast, pluralism within civil society has enabled the questioning of the logic of markets and old established practices of poverty relief. An atmosphere of hope has been dispersed across many more or less organized attempts to meet the needs of those who do not fit into administrative categories. Informal support has been a shield against the deepening of marginality and local solidarity initiatives have welcomed refugees in Greek cities against an ambivalent European immigration policy.

Yet “spontaneity” or “good will” is not adequate for change, especially when grassroots initiatives are confronted with suspicion by the European Union or have to operate in heavily bureaucratic surroundings. Contrary to widespread belief, it took years to accumulate knowledge in areas where civil society has been historically active, where the voluntary sector, professional associations, squatters, and grassroots initiatives co-operate, and where links to international advocacy organizations or movements have been established. Nonetheless, much of this capacity remains unexplored. Authoritarian and clientelist mentalities still survive amongst the members of ruling parties, using collective organizations as extensions of the state, devaluing social expertise, and silencing dissenting voices.

The Greek “strategy for fair and inclusive growth” may be viewed as an attempt to ameliorate policy fragmentation and reach a compromise with the European institutions over the future of post-welfare. Civil society organizations have criticized the formulation of the plan and negotiations with the Commission for lack of transparency. The plan does not set concrete objectives with regard to poverty reduction and praises the worth of targeted assistance, without assessing the social impact of the current low levels of support. Similarly, priorities for the “economic and social integration of youth” and for “a socially-oriented economy” are not supported by concrete measures. It is striking that the pressing issue of refugee and migrant integration is hardly mentioned. The plan identifies key areas of negotiation with the Commission, primarily the restoring of collective bargaining and a minimum wage, which have been a matter of concern for labor activists. Nonetheless, it will be extremely difficult to reverse key anti-labor legislation, and the taxation of low incomes and the young self-employed, and to postpone pension cuts, which have already been agreed with the lenders. Given such unfavorable conditions, local struggles for the political and economic enfranchisement of civil society are the only basis for optimism.

Vassilis Arapoglou, University of Crete, Greece <arapov@uoc.gr>

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