Last week, the International Monetary Fund admitted it had made grave mistakes in its handling of bailouts for Greece over the past three years. According to its own internal study, the IMF underestimated the toll that recession and unemployment would take on Greek society; the restructuring of Greece’s debt to private investors should have come much sooner.
While the IMF was acknowledging its errors regarding Greece, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was talking about his country as a “success story.” The number of tourists in Greece is expected to be far higher this summer and the country is expecting its first budget surplus in 2013. But austerity has more than taken its toll: 20 percent of Greece’s population now lives in poverty. On the very same day that the IMF admitted its mistakes, the Greek bureau of statistics reported that the country’s unemployment rosen again, to 26.8 percent.
Here are five reasons that austerity does not only bite, but can inflict long-term damage on people’s pockets, psyches, livelihoods and lives.
1. Austerity means shutting down public broadcasting
In a surprise move, the Greek government announced on Tuesday that it was shutting down the state broadcaster ERT to save money. Saying that the 75-year-old ERT (the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation) was a “haven of waste,” authorities said that 2,500 employees would lose their jobs.
Nonetheless, journalists were able to use online video channels, Twitter and other Internet sites to get out the news. Thursday saw the country gripped by a general strike involving employees from the metro, airports, ferries, buses and media outlets, all protesting the Greek literally pulling the plug on ERT. “This is worse than the junta. What’s next? Tanks in front of Parliament?” as 67-year-old Thomas Dedes says in the New York Times, with a reference to the 1970s when the leaders of the junta running the Greek government imposed harsh controls on Greek state television and foreign news broadcasts.
Britain’s BBC also faces cuts in its income due to changes in the name of austerity under the Conservative government.
2. Austerity endangers the health and well-being of individuals with disabilities.
As of April 1, individuals with disabilities have found themselves facing up to six different welfare cuts passed by the U.K.’s conservative government. These cuts fall on the country’s health, welfare and justice systems and include a “bedroom tax” which is to be paid by those in public housing who receive government benefits if they have a spare bedroom and do not take in a renter or move. The government has also said that far more stringent standards will be applied in determining whether a person qualifies for disability services.
A coroner has ruled that benefits cuts were the reason that Nicholas Baker, a former farm worker who had been paralyzed on the left side of his body after a brain hemorrhage years ago, took his own life last December.
3. “Austerity on its own” can impede economic growth.
A number of economists have repeatedly emphasized that austerity is not the answer to spurring economic growth. A group of private sector and government economists have said that the U.S. unemployment rate would be about a point lower (roughly 6.5 percent) and its economic growth greater without the emphasis on deficit reduction that has been at the center of numerous clashes between President Obama and Republicans in Congress.
The French government has announced that it is ending austerity measures with no one less than Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici saying that “austerity on its own impedes growth.” President Francois Hollande was elected on promises of ending austerity yet has, time and again, consented to austerity measures insisted upon by Germany. Meanwhile, France’s economy has worsened since Hollande took office, with unemployment at a record-high 10 percent and an ongoing recession.
4. Austerity has lasting, damaging effects on the next generation.
In a sort of “present pain for future gain” rationale, politicians have cited the importance of not passing on huge levels of debt to the next generation as the reason for austerity measures. But the effect of cuts on education and health and other services to children must be taken into account, UNICEF underscores. UNICEF has specifically pointed to the U.K.’s austerity policies as having the potential to make children’s prospects in the country “one of the worst” in the developed world.
Youth unemployment is indeed at record levels in Europe. 62.5 percent of young people in Greece are unemployed. That rate has grown by one percentage point since April of 2012, meaning that, by early 2014, it would pass 70 percent. European leaders say they are aware of the extent of this problem, which is by no means limited to Greece; youth unemployment is 56 percent in Spain. But just revamping education and training programs and other changes that officials are considering are far from enough. No wonder that people say there is a “lost generation” in Spain and in Greece.
5. Austerity is bad for your health, your children’s health, your grandkids’ health.
UCLA researchers have found that austerity can not only adversely affect a person’s health, whether by cuts to nutrition subsidies for mothers and children and to other welfare programs or through depression, stress and other mental health issues. Suicide rates have indeed increased in Europe and in the U.K. But the stress from a lingering economic crisis can have a toxic genetic effect on people. Ongoing stress can trigger chronic inflammation, which increases the risk of heart attacks and even cancer; such changes can actually occur at the genetic level and be passed down to your descendants.
In other words, politicians who claim that austerity now means prosperity later should realize that playing the role of Scrooge today means that’s how they’ll be seen by posterity.