It was only a couple of days ago that I mentioned MSZP’s complaint that the data on the number of people living at the subsistence level and below the subsistence level (in poverty) in Hungary still hadn’t been released. One of the MSZP politicians whose expertise is social welfare issues claimed that the report was ready to be published at the beginning of May but that the government put pressure on the Central Statistical Office (KSH or Központi Statisztikai Hivatal) not to release it at that time. Well, at last the figures are out together with an indignant denial of MSZP’s accusations. Yes, said the press release, normally the figures are published before July 1, but this year because of the work that had to be invested in the census–which by the way was also late–KSH was a bit behind.
Before we go into the details of the figures and what they mean, let’s go back a bit in time. In early 2012 Zsuzsa Ferge, a well-known sociologist whose main field of interest is the Hungarian poor, predicted that if the trend of the last few years continues the number of people who live at the subsistence level will reach 4 million by the end of 2012. The trend was definitely moving toward growing poverty. In 2000 there were only 3 million people who were living at the subsistence level; by 2005, 3.2 million; and by 2010, 3.7 million. That was 37% of the population. Today’s figure is, as Ferge predicted, a shocking 40%.
The growing number of poor people (and here I use the term “poor” loosely to include both those living at the subsistence level and those living beneath it) come mainly from the ranks of the middle class–teachers, nurses, and other low-paid workers. The Orbán government’s social policy clearly favors those who belong to the top income bracket. Sociologist Balázs Krémer also wrote a study published alongside that of Ferge in which he demonstrated how the rich are getting richer while the poor are becoming poorer in Hungary. Between 2009 and 2010 per capita income grew on average from 910,000 to 940,000 forints per annum. However, during the same period the incomes of the poorest 10% decreased by 12,000. The top 10%, on the other hand, became 98,000 forints richer and later, when the Orbán government changed the tax law, they saw their income grow by 314,000 forints per year.
According to KSH estimates, a family of four (two working adults and two children) need a minimum of 249,284 forints to maintain themselves on a subsistence level. That means 62,421 per person. A single-person household needs at least 86,000 and a two-person household 150,400 forints. KSH’s table is self-explanatory with the possible exception of the last three items that refer to pensioners, living alone or with one or two others.
In Hungary 60% of the family income goes for food and shelter. For comparison here are a few figures from the United States. Shelter is a large chunk of the family income here too. About the same as in Hungary or a little more (34%), but an American family spends only 12% of their income on food as opposed to 31% in Hungary.
In addition to the 4 million people in Hungary who live at the subsistence level there are 1,3800,00 people who live below it. That number constitutes 13.8% of the population. So only 46% of the Hungarian population live above the subsistence level.
It’s no wonder that more and more people are seeking a new life abroad. Mostly in Germany and the United Kingdom. Last year Tárki estimated that about 20% of the adult population planned to leave the country. Since then these numbers have only grown. According to some recent polls, half of all high school and university students are contemplating leaving Hungary. Naturally, it is a lot easier to talk than to act. Most of these people will end up staying at home, but the numbers are still very high.
A few months ago György Matolcsy referred to the half a million Hungarians who live and work outside the country. He didn’t give any source, but journalists figured that he must have based his numbers on some statistics that were available only to government insiders. Now we have an official figure from KSH that accounts for part of this “diaspora”: 350,000 people still have a permanent address in Hungary but have been working abroad for some time. Most of these individuals, I suspect, are young people who are still registered as part of the family household.
This brings up an interesting point about the way that KSH calculates its employment statistics. KSH includes among the employed even those who actually work abroad, including the 350,000 people we are talking about here. KSH inquires whether József Kovács, who is living abroad, has a job; if so (and presumably if he’s in another country he is gainfully employed), he is counted among the Hungarian employed. If KSH didn’t include these people in their statistics, the Hungarian unemployment figures would be significantly higher.
Hungary has seen modest employment gains in the public sector due to the public works program. But the salaries that workers in this program receive are way below the official minimum wage and are only about half the subsistence level for an individual. (And since only one member of a family is eligible for public works, he’s earning less than 20% of what a family of four would need to subsist on.) Yesterday Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary in charge of the public works program, refused to answer Olga Kálmán’s question as to whether 43,000 forints, the salary of a full-time (40 hours per week) public worker, is enough to live on. The interview is already available on YouTube.
Given the economic realities in today’s Hungary, I don’t expect any improvement in the living standards of Hungarians in the near future. And I think we should anticipate an even higher emigration rate, for both economic and political reasons.