The Invisible Side of Latvia’s ‘Success’ Story: Life with ‘God’s Mercy and the Goodness of Others’
On this blog, Henry Law repeatedly (and rightly) stated that news about the Baltic states should not just be based upon statistics but also on ‘field work’. Read this long article, the best piece of investigative journalism I’ve read for quite some time. An excerpt (ht: “Jan”):
Latvia’s painful austerity program and recent economic growth is presented to the world as a success story and a model for other struggling countries resisting cuts. Re:Baltica’s investigation finds that Latvia has some of the highest poverty, unemployment and income inequality rates in the EU. What can other countries learn from Latvia to avoid the high human costs of its political choices?
When Zane Valdmane opens the door to her apartment, holding her two-year-old daughter Made in her arms, the chronic lack of money in this household is invisible at first glance. 36-year-old Zane’s athletic body and striking face, with tiny wrinkles around the corners of her lips, radiate health and joyfulness. The family’s small apartment in the city of Saldus, where Zane lives with her daughter and 13-year-old son Arturs, is orderly, calm, and filled with the light scent of a burning candle.
But as we talk at the small kitchen table set in a narrow kitchen, this idyllic family picture slowly dissipates. Two toothbrushes sit in a cup near the kitchen sink. There is no shower in this apartment. Made and Zane wash themselves in a small bucket in the kitchen. Arturs uses showers at his soccer gym. There is no refrigerator. Zane can’t afford to buy one or pay for electricity to run it. The kitchen walls are covered with wallpaper from three different rolls that Zane bought thanks to a church donation.
As a single mother, Zane is a part of the largest group at risk for poverty in Latvia. Overall, 425,000 people – or one out of every five people in Latvia – are poor. The monthly income of each household in this group is about 215 euros or less.
To see municipal social benefits paid
in 2011 in Latvia, click on the map.
These families often don’t have enough money to cover rent, heat, or buy food. Sometimes, these homes don’t have running water, a phone or a TV. Last year, 100,000 Latvians lived on less than 65 euros a month.
The biggest joy and pride of Zane’s life —her children—turned out to be her biggest trial. Poor, single mothers like Zane have a harder time raising children in Latvia than in any other country in the European Union (EU). This is largely because Latvia spends less on social benefits that target the poor than almost any other EU country. The World Bank’s experts note that the Latvian government supports children from middle- and high-income families more generously than most European countries, but it invests the least amount of resources in children like Made and Arturs, who live in poor, single-parent homes.
Even after a significant expansion of the social safety net in the aftermath of the recession, Latvia’s spending on social protection programs for the poor was still among the lowest in the EU. For example, when the country faced the world’s deepest recession in 2009, only Bulgaria and Romania spent less on social protection programs. Estonia spent 40 percent more per capita than Latvia, Lithuania spent 33 percent more.
Re:Baltica called two companies that had the most openings to see what kind of jobs are available for people like Zane.
The first company, IMS, located about an hour and a half away from Saldus, is a fish processing plant. They are looking for people to pack cartons and seal containers. The pay depends on how many cartons are processed and the size of the box being packed. If the worker can do 1.5 shifts, it is possible to make more than 287 euros per month. Since Zane lives over 100 km away, the manager promised a bus ride. There are hostels at the processing plant too, but workers will have to pay to stay in them. Another company, Bears Ltd. is looking for cookie bakers, but openings are only in the night shifts. Each shift is 12 hours, and pay is about 2 euros an hour.
There are also some openings in grocery stores, but Zane already tried this route when she worked for a local butcher, and there was little gain. Work hours were from 9 am to 9 pm. The employer refused to sign a contract, offer sick leave, or vacation. Salary: 215 euros under the table. After Zane paid a babysitter, she ended up with less money than even the meager state benefits she currently receives.