Poverty is an increasing problem in Hungary and sees the country on a downward spiral compared to the other Visegrád Four states, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Institute of Sociology at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences agrees and presented a Eurostat study at a recent conference in Budapest.
The academy felt it necessary to make public the study because the Central Statistical Office (KSH) did not conduct a formal survey on the extent of poverty in Hungary this year due to “lack of resources”. KSH announced later that it is working on improving its methodology for measuring poverty, and this was why it could not conduct the usual annual study. The Academy of Sciences (MTA) wanted to fill in this information gap.
Vera Messing, the associate of the Institute of Sociology said the ratio of those people in Hungarian society enduring severe hardship in everyday life increased from 20.3% to 26.8% from 2009 to 2013. The institute considers that people who meet at least three of the following criteria are living in severe hardship: 1) cannot pay the rent or living costs on time, 2) cannot provide proper heating at home, 3) do not have money saved for unexpected expenses, 4) cannot afford to eat meat regularly, 5) do not have enough money to take one week of holiday, 6-9) do not have a car, washing machine, television or phone.
The comparison against two other Visegrád states shows how bad the situation in Hungary is: in Poland the ratio of people in hard circumstances is around 11.9% and in Slovakia 10.2%. The EU average is 9.6%. There is another social aspect where Hungary ranks badly in the Visegrád Four: the ratio of people at risk of living in poverty and in the social segregation that accompanies it is 33.5% in Hungary (in 2009 it was 29.6%), against 25.8% of Poles and 19.8% of Slovaks. Messing concludes that Hungary is not only becoming impoverished, it is falling behind the neighbouring region.
She said poverty increased most in Central Hungary, in the Plains and in the Northern and North-Eastern part of the country. The only place where the situation did not worsen was Transdanubia. In the EU in 2013, 24.5% of citizens, namely 122.6 million people, were threatened by poverty. In most EU countries, just like in Hungary, poverty increased since 2008. There were some exceptions though. The ratio of people at threat declined In Poland from 30.5% to 25.8%, in Romania from 44.2% to 40.4% and in Austria from 20.6% to 18.8%.
The Eurostat data made it obvious that in Hungary children are the ones who are most likely to be suffering from poverty. The younger a child is, the more likely it is that he or she is living in a poor family. Despite popular belief, pensioners are the group most protected from poverty. Hungary is in the top three for child poverty, with Romania and Bulgaria. A total 42.2% of the youngest Hungarians, namely children under seven years, are living in poverty.
Messing said child poverty has intensified dramatically in Hungary in the past few years. Except for Hungary, all the other EU countries managed to stop or even turn around child poverty, even Romania, the sociologist said.
Social support reduced
Another sociologist, Dorottya Szikra, pointed out that one reason behind this situation is that the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán reduced the period of support for unemployed people from nine months to three months, the shortest in Europe. Some countries (Italy, Lithuania and Romania) increased this period after the world economic crisis. In addition, the support for unemployed in Hungary is a modest HUF 22,800 a month.
Zsombor Farkas, who represented charity organisation Chances for Children, emphasised that the possibilities of poor people in Hungary are limited because family benefits have not been increased since 2008 (they amount to HUF 12,200 a month for one child, HUF 13,300 per child for two children and HUF 16,000 per child for three children or more). The same applies for the maternity grant (gyes), which is paid until the child reaches the age of three (HUF 28,500 a month). As Farkas said, this means a 20-25% loss of real value in the family benefits and maternity grant.