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Human Rights Education:
Critical Choices for Hungary
Critical Choices for Hungary
Poverty in Hungary
Written by: Tibor Dessewfy and Ferenc Hammer
Once upon a time, and a long time ago it was, there were two stepbrothers.
The older brother had inherited all the property - the big house, and all the livestock. His little brother didn't have a thing in the world, he was poor as a church mouse. The older brother lived off the fat of the land. He had everything you could want.
One day Ms little brother knocked on his door. His older brother came out - all proud
and arrogant - 'Whatchou want?'
(I. Nagy, Z. Nagy, 1990 (eds.) Az lkertündérek - Nagyvarónai népmesék. Budapest. Akademia publishers. pp. 43-44. Trans. E. Weaver, 1995.)
To speak about any term one needs a commonly accepted definition, so perhaps a discussion of the problem of poverty should begin with an exploration of what we commonly mean by poverty. As a guide to discussion it should be stressed from the start that poverty is more than simply the state of being poor: poorness, a simple lack of money, can be temporary - poverty is something ingrained.
Poverty is seen as a lack, and a lack of more than money - though money is doubtless the most pressing need: as the old song says "I got plenty of nothing. and nothing's plenty for me". In fact, folklore around the world is a rich in poverty imagery. Folk tales and songs often describe poverty as a weight or a sort of dirt. People are said to be unable to "shake off' their poverty, or are described as being born in poverty- "filthy poverty" - "stinking poverty". Poverty "holds people down". Poverty is described as something worse than just a want of money - a want of chances and initiative is clearly involved. A striking example of how individual experience is mixed with implicit notions of poverty was shown in Hungarian Television, when a little girl -asked what she thought of the poor- answered: 'The poor are sad and stupid'.
The wealth of folk stories and tales indicates two things not necessarily lacking among the poor: intelligence and initiative. Social scientists have come to view poverty in a way which mirrors folk beliefs. Poverty is seen as inheritable and the inheritable nature of poverty is discussed with such terms as "lifestyle" and "way of life". In contrast to people who become poor because of misfortune, those born in dire poverty are characterized as having a fatalistic attitude, and of feeling that they are unsuited for another way of life. They are commonly poorly educated and are not taught by their parents to consider education an option. They may even speak a distinct dialect, and be able to switch speech patterns between a "can't", difficult for mainstream society to understand, and more common forms of speech.
"It takes money to make money"
Common experience tells us that the truly poor "dress poor", "act poor", and even (as poets have noted) "smell poor and think poor". People from poorer communities will often stigmatize one of their fellows who begins to act, dress or talk "like other folks". Such people are described as "putting on airs", as denying their birthright.
A famous black American poet once noted "how expensive it is to be poor" - to buy things in small quantities, not to be able to wait for lower prices, to buy things "on time" and to pay the interest thereby accruing over that time.
Those born and raised in poverty often lack the knowledge of how to save money, much
less how to truly earn it. Even if -despite discrimination against their speech and dress
habits - they are able to get a job, they are often lacking in behavior and skills
required by modem employers. They
Attempts to eliminate poverty are often poorly worked out - perhaps simply because of the daunting nature of the task to be carried out. Some are, in effect, "first aid" programs which provide the extremely poor with clothing, food, coupons, or (more simply) money in an attempt to keep them alive. Citizens are often baffled by the fact that after being given aid, the poor are soon back in their miserable situation. People grow angry that their taxes are used and used again to no avail, and say that "good money is being thrown after bad". And when experts suggest that what is really needed is a comprehensive program of education and allocation, citizens are shocked at the potential costs. In a country such as Hungary, where so many have become poor in such a short period of time, and where so little money is actually available for social programs, there is a real danger that the chronically poor, those born in the direst poverty will be (have been) neglected or forgotten. Their neglect will have implications for generations to come, and may more deeply ingrain the problem into Hungarian society.
Throughout Central Europe the establishment of market economy has been accompanied by a spread of poverty. However we should not forget that there were also poor people under the previous regime, but that the issue was officially regarded as taboo. An independent citizen initiative, The Fund for Supporting the Poor (SZETA) was banned and prosecuted as subversion in the 1970s. As the following figures (and everyday experience- ) show, the numbers of the desperately poor, those living under the poverty line, have drastically increased over the past years. (The poverty line is the sum of incomes of a household which allows those in the house- hold to feed and clothe themselves, and pay for beating and electricity).
Who are we talking about?
People living under the poverty line are not simply unemployed or their family members: many of them work hard and are still unable to reach a decent standard of living. Families with three children are over represented in this group. There are also a lot of young people living around the poverty line, but for many of them poverty is a temporary situation. This is not the case for about 200.000 retired citizens. They have no hope of recovering from poverty on their own - they need support from the rest of the society. Social research show that there is a heavy fluctuation in the composition of the poor. Families of relatively small number tend to only temporarily experience poverty. But this is not the case for about five percent of society for whom poverty seems to be a permanent state. This data sufficiently shows that the poor can not be regarded as a homogenous group. Four social groups are seriously over represented: the retired, families with three or more children, the permanently unemployed, and gypsies.
The government's role in social policy
About the one tenth of the national budget is spent on social policy. The items covered by this fund include retirement and sick-leave payments, unemployment benefits, family support, maternity payments, support for the handicapped, poverty pay-checks distributed by local governments, housing assistance, or funding of activities such as family counseling, maintaining homeless shelters, youth programs, and support for orphanages, nurseries and kindergartens.
There are several of the causes of poverty that prevail among citizens. Based on polls and social policy debates we have developed three lines of argument about how to eliminate poverty. Each option sees the issue differently, and points out different characteristics of society today as decisive factors. Each choice is accompanied by arguments against it. These options have been designed to enrich discussion and to help group or class create their own option.
It should not be the burden of society as a whole to provide for the well-being of every citizen. As a rule, people can be expected to care for themselves. Government need only concern itself with the care of the most desperate. Yet even -this aid should not take the form of hand-outs. Provisions to enable the poor to become a vital part of the workforce, in the form of incentives and training, should be standard policy.
An evaluation of Hungary's social policy should not begin with what is lacking, but rather with our actual situation. More than ten percent of the workforce is currently unemployed. While this alone is an unacceptable problem, we need also consider that it is roughly 51 percent of the population which provides economically for themselves and everyone else. The other 49 percent - pensioners, women taking maternity leave, unemployed workers, students and children - can safely be called economic dependents. And when the working poor are considered - those families living below the poverty line -we arrive at a situation where only a third of the population is driving the economy for everyone else. Economically this cannot be borne. In wealthier industrialized nations officials refer to an "economic crisis" when only two-thirds of the population can be viewed as providers of income and wealth.
The best social policy is economic development. A program of tax breaks and a general reduction in the level of required payments to finance social security, coupled with incentives for investors to inject money into Hungary will motivate sustained economic growth. People will then be freed from a dependence on government welfare programs to choose an opportunity to improve the quality of their lives through their work and ideas. The recent flight of many people from poverty to entrepreneurialism gives only a taste of what is possible if energies and innovation are released. The high cost of today's social programs will be shouldered by those small companies with the greatest promise. Unless costs are reduced, programs downsized, and bureaucracies slashed, in the future we will have neither social programs nor economic growth.
Hungary is known abroad for the quality of its education. Foreign companies are often amazed at the level of knowledge and skills we possess, most particularly in the fields of mathematics and natural science. If we know nothing else, Hungarians know how to study. Combined with the proper policies to foster economic growth, namely the financially-liberating ones described above, and Hungary's superb schools and disciplined scholarship will start to pay off in a big way. Still, as reliable sources indicate, the scene may not be so bleak as it looks through "official" eyes.
"The numbers we have regarding income are not reliable," says social science researcher Tamas Kolosi, "when we compare recorded income to the amount people spent in 1993, we find that on the national level people spent some four billion dollars more than they earned. In the legitimate economy alone, people are making some twenty per cent more than they are saying. If we include the black market, the figure jumps some 30-50%."
Poverty: the price of freedom?
What is a shame in wealthier industrialized nations is often considered a virtue among Hungarians. To depend, in Hungary, on social assistance for one's livelihood or as a supplement to one's black market income is not looked down upon or seen as a mark of failure or criminality, but rather as a sign of one's cleverness and ability to cheat the "state." Even after the fall of Communism, many here still fail to see government as an empowering extension of themselves, but see it rather as something alien and obtrusive, something to oppose and deceive, even exploit whenever possible. Social assistance programs must therefore be designed and implemented with a measure of caution; financial support should not simply be limited to those in desperate need (e.g. welfare should not be a viable alternative to working at minimum wage), but recipients of such aid should have their eligibility regularly evaluated.
The creativity that is used harmfully to exploit social programs could become the engine for economic growth if the system were effectively restructured. To redirect such energy individuals should not be punished with high rates of taxes for making money in legitimate business practices. Such businesses creates jobs and provide the best insurance policies for Hungary's economic future. Tax rates should be reasonable, and the programs they fund should not be of the sort that create economic dependence or invite people to become cheats. Further, what taxes must be paid should be collected more effectively. With black market activity responsible for some 40 per cent of Hungary's GDP, taxes need to be such that people are willing to pay, and severely punished if they do not.
Common Responsibility, Common Burdens: Citizens' Rights to Social Assistance.
At a time when many industrialized countries are reexamining their welfare systems, it is crucial that Hungary not lose sight of its current mission to create a system of welfare compatible with a market driven economy, rather than to dismantle one that has not yet been constructed. A hasty dismantling of those welfare mechanisms put in place under communism may well exclude a significant portion of the population from the benefits of the positive economic changes now occurring. The resulting social disparity could lead to the popular perception of an unjust society and be the cause of worrisome tensions between people.
Katalin Levai No man is an island in today's society. The interwoven nature of our lives brings with it a responsibility shared by every citizen to maintain social integrity and well-being. Such responsibility demands that those who have, be mindful of, and sympathetic toward those who have not. An effective and humane system of publicly-funded social assistance is currently in place. What is needed are improvements in both efficiency and in the actual quality of aid:
Such broad-sweeping policies will, of course, cost money. But given the fact that human beings are the best possible investment, returns will be unbeatable. Two sources of funding come quickly to mind. Trimming the fat from government bureaucracy will bring significant savings to pay for those programs tailored to aid citizens in need. The second source would be the increase in public monies which will arise from raises in income and property taxes.
However, just throwing money at our social problems will be no answer. The government must play an active, coordinating role for the programs described above to be successful. Trade unions and industrial associations can also be of great assistance in organizing these programs effectively.
We now stand at the dawn of a new era. With the revolutionary political changes coming in recent years, including the rediscovery of individual tights, along with a greater separation of government from public life, Hungary finds itself in an emerging economic reality, strongly influenced by the West, if somewhat haphazardly. There is a select few who live more comfortably now than ever as a result of these changes, but there are far too many who suffer from greatly diminished standards of living. It is a unique situation, unexperienced by a democratic, industrialized nation.
In recent years, countries facing economic hardship have been advised by Western experts to reform and "downsize" their governments, with the hopes of achieving some forlorn ideal of classical capitalism dreamt up some 150 years ago. We are fed commercial rhetoric telling us we are now free to convert our ideas into gold, this with the help of the latest marketing techniques. This is not, however, the road to prosperity for everyone or even the majority. The clock need not be turned back 150 years for the answer to be found. A mere sixty or so would be enough. The sort of policies which helped lead the industrial world out of the Great Depression hold the solution to Hungary's current economic crisis: a publicly-funded job creation program, employment retraining, aid to the poor, government-backed low interest loans for new businesses; to name but a few. One need only look to Scandinavia to find countries that continue to use such policies to protect both labor and business interests as a means to maintain prosperity.
A broader understanding of poverty: local support, cooperation, self-help
"Poverty is not the opposite of wealth, but rather, a dead end. Those forces which lead to poverty simply illustrate how fragile our lives are. They stem from a variety of difficulties experienced by individuals in today's rapidly changing world."
To effectively address the problem of poverty, we need to look at more than its causes and effects - we need to examine its very reality. Poverty is a state of mind, a culture that develops in response to a disconnection from possibility, a disconnection from community, a disconnection from hope.
That more people do not slip into poverty is no small wonder. The view held here is that we have our communities to thank. The strength of such communities can be found among family members, helpful neighbors, church groups, and among understanding colleagues and superiors in the workplace. When a community functions well, it is because of the active solidarity among its members. People look out for each other, help each other, if for no other reason than the fact that they can imagine themselves in a state of need. When individuals slip into poverty it is not simply because they have run out of money - it is also because their community has failed. For poverty to be effectively addressed, it must be addressed at the local level, at the community level.
Of course, the solution of poverty should not be left for our communities to solve alone. Rather, government should move away from the creation of monolithic bureaucracies and tailor social programs to strengthen those aspects of our communities which can prevent poverty from becoming a deeper problem. State sponsorship of community self-help programs, tax breaks for community volunteers as well as government supported incentives promoting charity work are all part of what is needed. The goal here is not simply be to help those individuals threatened by poverty to meet their basic needs, but also to pave the way out of poverty, through education and employment as well as through such otherwise unreachable aid as emotional and spiritual support. Communities by their very nature are better able than government to locate and help those in need. It makes sense that the focus of an anti-poverty campaign should be set at the community level.
Help Is Painful, Too
To be a success, social assistance must in itself be somewhat of a paradox:. needy individuals who manage to receive the most benefits are in general those, among eligible beneficiaries, who are best able to help themselves. But what of the homeless? They lack even the most basic foundations from which to rebuild their lives "The crisis of the homeless", says a leading social scientist, "is one which threatens the very life of the individual involved; it is, at bottom, a medical problem." To help the homeless, the suggests the following:
A French social policy expert warns us that the language we use when talking about the have-nots is very important- "There has always been a danger that society will become divided distinctly between rich and poor, because there always exists the potential for vulnerability and uncertain living conditions in any society. But a society is tom apart if it creates a symbolic wall dividing inside from outside, and us from them. A society takes the phenomena of vulnerability and uncertainty of life for granted when it places economic necessity and unbound individualism as the highest moral principles, and makes a distinction between society and marginalized groups possible. Instead of using such terms as poverty, marginalization, deviance, exclusion, I propose terms like uncertainty of lives, vulnerability and disintegration. The purpose behind such terms is to suggest that we are witnesses to a changing process, rather than static conditions. This affords us the optimism of placing such social phenomena- in a dynamic context which we are able to improve: to help those in need before their vulnerability becomes entrenched in a fated, frightening reality."
Social policy is a public issue which cannot contribute to the development of a democracy unless there are informed citizens who actively contribute to the decision making process on issues of social concern. Further, this is precisely the way in which dependents authoritarian systems can turn into deliberative citizens within a democracy.
Deliberation on poverty must include such questions as "What is the minimum level of social aid that everyone should be able to expect?", or "Which phenomena now present in society can no longer be tolerated, and therefore require immediate attention?"
When addressing poverty, we must be wary of what we are talking about. Who do we really mean when we talk about the poor? What is real poverty? Are the poor those who simply have less money than the majority of people? Or are they those who were not poor yesterday, but find themselves poor today? Or are they those who were poor yesterday and, without doubt, will be poor tomorrow? Or are the poor those who are unable to meet such basic needs of human existence as food, clothing and shelter And if we call them all poor, who is the poorest of the poor? And if we identified those who are the poorest,what proves that they need (or get) the most immediate help?
All these concerns can be addressed if we take the responsibility of talking about poverty, social justice and social policy. Every one of these concerns is significant when designing programs of social assistance. These concerns embody our deepest motivations and values when we consider issues of justice and fairness. But if we expect our governments to be just and fair and "to serve people's well-being", firstly and most importantly, citizens have to come to terms with such questions as what we can expect from each other and further, what is it that we can only expect from ourselves. This is the mission of the Hungarian Issues Forums.
In the course of deliberation you will notice that sometimes noble
principles contradict one another, such as fairness, equal opportunity, self-ownership and
equal rights. It is impossible to make clear-cut decisions regarding these pressing
concerns. And these concerns are not ones we can wait for experts to solve. Making choices
regarding human values and finding a balance among them is ultimately our duty as
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Critical Choices for Hungary