Spain: Grocery lines grow during pandemic

(Madrid) – The Spanish government’s failure to adequately respond to the sharp rise in poverty during the Covid-19 pandemic has left tens of thousands of people in desperate need.

The 63-page report, “‘We can’t live like this’: Spain’s Failure to Protect Rights Amid Rising Pandemic-Linked Poverty,” documents the ongoing weaknesses of Spain’s social security system. Authorities’ efforts to supplement a flimsy safety net have failed, leaving people unable to afford essentials. Violations of people’s rights to food, social security and a decent standard of living could worsen as global food and fuel costs soar. This research is the first in a series of investigations in Europe into people’s right to an adequate standard of living in the context of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the rapidly increasing cost of living worldwide.

“The economic storm that has accompanied the Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the lives of low-income people in Spain, leaving households unable to afford groceries even before the current cost-of-living crisis,” said Kartik Raj, European researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Government efforts to supplement an inadequate social safety net have offered too little, too late and too little, meaning thousands of people are still dependent on emergency relief and parents are skipping meals so their children can eat.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 52 people at food banks in Madrid and Barcelona, ​​as well as 22 food bank staff and volunteers, specialists from nongovernmental groups, and academics, and analyzed government and other data related to the social safety net and the distribution of food aid.

National data shows that the Covid-19 pandemic has hit low-income neighborhoods of Spanish cities like Madrid and Barcelona particularly hard in terms of infection rates. The economic shutdown in these densely populated areas, which was not sufficiently alleviated by social security systems, made matters worse.

People’s incomes dried up and they were no longer able to afford food and other basic necessities. Many faced delays in receiving pandemic-related furlough payments and responses to their Social Security assistance requests. People who make a living in the informal economy have been hit doubly hard by being excluded from Spain’s contributory social security schemes or furloughs.

Families with children, older people on state pensions, migrants and asylum seekers, and workers in female-dense sectors such as hospitality and seasonal work were disproportionately affected. Single mothers in particular spoke of skipping meals to ensure their children have enough to eat. Pensioners surveyed in grocery lines said Social Security support, which was inadequate before the pandemic, is even less adequate now.

Data from the country’s main network of food banks (Federación Española de Bancos de Alimentos, FESBAL) showed a 48 percent increase in food distribution in 2020 compared to 2019, approaching the highest level of food distribution since 2014, when Spain’s unemployment rate declined peaked after the global financial crisis. Data from regional and national food banks showed that while demand fell in 2021, it remained about 20 percent higher than in 2019.

With growing food lines and rising unemployment and poverty at the onset of the pandemic, the Spanish government launched a national minimum subsistence income scheme (Ingreso Mínimo Vital, IMV) in May 2020, allowing claimants to claim between €451 and €1,015 per claim month by household size. However, the level of support is too low to ensure an adequate standard of living, Human Rights Watch found. And the IMV system itself has encountered a number of problems.

Ana Belén, 42, from Puente de Vallecas in Madrid, lives with her adult son and 6-year-old daughter and ran a bar until the pandemic-related closures prompted her to close down her business for good. “I get the IMV,” she said. “That’s 465 euros a month. Our rent is €600. We can’t buy anything. Every month begins with a debt. There’s nothing in the fridge. I cannot put into words the impact this is having on me.”

The Social Security system has struggled to cope with demand for the new IMV program, compounded by a backlog of applications due to office closures early in the pandemic. As a result, in some cases people were left without adequate social security and welfare for several months and starved because they ran out of money.

Although the government tried to speed up the rollout of the IMV program — an existing pre-pandemic campaign pledge — its flawed rollout failed to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic. Slow bureaucracy, arbitrary exclusions built into the criteria, a flawed means test calculation methodology, and high levels of rejection of IMV applications all contributed to the problem. There was also confusion about how the national program would interact with existing social assistance programs in Spain’s autonomous communities.

Analysis by investigative data journalists revealed that by the end of March 2021, nine months into the IMV program, three quarters of applicants had been rejected. In its second year of existence, data showed that IMV only reached about 6 percent of people whom the Spanish government considered “at risk of poverty or social exclusion”.

Bold government action now can ensure a better and fairer outcome for the rights of the people of Spain and give them the economic resilience to weather future crises, Human Rights Watch said. The government should embed in domestic law the protection of specific socio-economic rights, including the right to an adequate standard of living and to food, and significantly reform the IMV and social security support in general.

The Spanish government should speed up its process of assisting people who need IMV assistance and remove restrictive eligibility criteria. It should reassess and revise social security rates, including age-related pensions. Autonomous community governments should similarly revise and reassess their social security rates and transparently link them to the cost of living, including ensuring access to adequate, affordable food.

“The Spanish government’s actions to soften the edges of the financial shock that followed the public health emergency, well-intentioned as they may be, have not averted growing hunger,” Raj said. “Spain needs a coordinated, well-funded social protection system that ensures that people in need of such support can live with dignity, their rights are protected and they do not have to live from hand to mouth.”

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