Zsuzsa Ferge is the foremost Hungarian expert on poverty. By training she is an economist who has been working in the field of social statistics, sociology, and social policy. She became a full professor of sociology at ELTE in 1988 and a year later established the first department of social policy. Her main fields of interest have been social structure, social inequalities, education, and social policy. She is a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the European Academy, and the European Academy of Yuste Foundation. She is the recipient of an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh. Although she retired in 2001, she is still the director of the Poverty Research Center at ELTE and head of research at the unit working on the National Program against Child Poverty at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
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Karl Pfeifer’s short report on the conference
On my way to the conference on poverty organized by Stádium 28, I saw the car of Érpatak mayor Mihály Zoltán Orosz, who is worried about “the efforts of Freemason Jews to rule the world.” On his car I discovered a sticker praising his own “Érpatak model” of “law and order.”
The hall of the Jesuit Center “The House of Dialogue” was filled with mostly young students who wanted to hear about the real situation in their country. One hopes that eventually they will participate in efforts to change the disastrous situation that exists in parts of the country.
As for the program, Ivan Szelényi, professor emeritus of sociology at Yale, spoke about inequality in the U.S.
Éva Havasi, a sociologist who specializes in social statistics and is senior adviser in the Hungarian Central Statistical Office, gave a lecture on the different ways of measuring poverty. She pointed out that a few years ago the Hungarian Central Statistical Office abolished the category of subsistence level, and therefore people interested in the depth of poverty in Hungary have to rely on their own calculations. According to her computation, 37.3% of Hungarians live under the subsistence level.
Zsuzsa Ferge finished her short and poignant lecture with the question: When will the government formulate a policy to reduce poverty and increase happiness in Hungary?
During the panel discussion Júlia Szalai, visiting professor at CEU, pointed out that most people are totally unaware of the depth of poverty in the country because it is concentrated in about 100 ghetto villages. Since there is no serious effort on the part of the government to ease poverty in Hungary, one wonders whether there are groups who are actually interested in the permanence of poverty. It is hard to imagine that being the case, but the government’s indifference to the problem is unfortunately real.
Especially impressive was the contribution of the Roma civil rights activist Jenő Setét, who told the audience that not one of his uncles reached the age of 50. He spoke about the successful government propaganda that claims that “we live in a world where everyone who wants to work can work.” This assertion is a brazen lie when there are regions where “in a 60 km radius there are no jobs.”
The plight of the public workers was also a topic of discussion. At first glance, the idea of a work-based society sounds attractive. Providing work instead of doling out meager financial assistance might be a better way to deal with the problem. But because the local mayors decide who can get work and who cannot, the whole public works program has become a weapon in the hands of the local authorities. Favors are distributed according to political loyalty. The program functions as a deterrent to protest and revolt against the government.
Karl Pfeifer: When I began to write about Hungary in 1979, I read the Kemény survey on Roma1 in Hungary. Yesterday I heard Jenő Setét, the Roma activist, speaking about the Roma not having any water nearby during the summer and that many have to walk 100-200 m to the closest fountain. It seems that not much has changed for the Roma since.
Zsuzsa Ferge: On the contrary. A lot has changed for the Roma. Their situation has gotten much worse. When Kemény published his survey, 90% of Roma men and 70% of Roma women had a job and earned a living. Most of them left the so-called cigánytelep (ghetto); they had more or less decent housing; they had quite good relations with their co-workers; and their children received good treatment in schools. Everything Kemény wrote was true. They were poorer than the rest of society and their educational attainment was curtailed. Their situation was not good, but it was relatively better than it had been 30 years earlier and much, much better than 30 years later.
What happened in 1990? The Hungarian government, without any preparation, privatized all big firms and, as a result, 1.5 million jobs were lost. Seventy percent of the Roma became unemployed. They were the first ones to be fired. Since then very few jobs have been created for those who have no special skills. The governments between 1990 and 2010 paid little attention to the poor, and in the last eight years the Orbán government’s economic policies have been outright antagonistic toward the poorest strata of Hungarian society.
Since 2010 discrimination against the Roma has been increasing. What Setét said yesterday is true. Discrimination is reinforced through the efforts of the government in order to cover up all the real problems that exist in the country. It manipulates people through hate campaigns to fear and/or loathe others. It has created a “culture of hate” in which an overwhelming majority of Hungarians by now hate migrants, hate foreigners in general, and hate George Soros. An organic part of this hate campaign is “consultation with the people,” which consists of a questionnaire posing questions about the population’s attitude toward the “migrants” and about the “Soros Plan.” Concentrating hatred on the migrants and Soros is also an implicit way of concentrating hatred against the Gypsies and the Jews. So, the migrants, a minority, can be replaced by the Gypsies and Soros by the Jewish “world conspiracy.”
KP: The association organizing the conference on poverty in Hungary had difficulties finding a site, and in the end the event took place in a hall belonging to the Jesuits. At least in Austria the Catholic Church is, as far as social issues are concerned, to the left of the left-wing parties. It seems paradoxical.
ZsF: I am not surprised by your question. There are many different strands within the Hungarian Catholic Church. On one hand, the government is handing as many schools, old age homes, and hospitals as possible to the Catholic Church. It also favors the churches by allocating two to three times more money per student to parochial schools than to public schools. On the other hand, the Jesuits offered a place for this group of scholars, who are not exactly revolutionaries. It is a group composed of members and doctors of the academy who just want to conduct an academic debate about important questions. Such an academic discussion poses no danger to politics. Still, social scientists have something to say about social reality. They have the necessary scientific instruments; they have the know-how; they have the research facilities to diagnose the ills of society. That is what the “Stadium 28” group stands for. Actually, we went first to the university, where the rector offered a room, but then a new rector was appointed who immediately withdrew the permission. It was at that point that the Jesuits offered this place, which is fantastic, and yes, it means that they are more open to autonomous thinking than many other institutions.
KP: I have the impression that now, unlike in the Kádár period, poverty is not hidden. Even in Budapest, one can see homeless people everywhere. Is Hungary still a country with three million beggars?2
ZsF: There are statistics, there is reality, and there is government information. The three are at odds with one another. The government wants to cover up the problem. Statistics try to measure poverty, but yesterday in this academic conference statisticians told us that it was extremely difficult to measure poverty for many, many reasons. So, it happens that the statistical measures of various aspects of poverty are sometimes very similar to European averages, but in some cases, especially where exclusion is concerned, which means lack of goods, lack of ability to cover basic necessities, then Hungary is at the bottom of the European ranking, usually together with Romania and Bulgaria. In brief, poverty in Hungary is a very serious problem.
The sad reality is that the majority of the poor are those Gypsies and non-Gypsies who have no qualifications, who have no possibility of getting jobs except what is called government public work, which is a poor substitute for real, productive employment. Those village dwellers who subsist on a pittance are becoming invisible. In the villages many of the Roma are recreating their former ghettos, which were defined 20 years ago by the excellent British sociologist John Rex, who said that the Gypsy settlement starts where the collection of garbage stops. The local authorities do not collect garbage from the Gypsy ghettos and therefore it is infested with…. A very depressing place. Theoretically, all houses and flats should have water. But if you do not pay for it, sooner or later you will be cut off, and many of those people who live on a cigánytelep have to go 200 meters or more for water because water is scarce and often cut off. Water is the first need. However, water is not considered a basic necessity by this government.
The same is true for the life chances of children. For five years my group of researchers used to visit villages in one particular region in order to offer the inhabitants help. We tried to ease their situation somewhat. Well, in 2011 the government ended the program altogether. People in poverty face extreme difficulties. Both parents and children encounter hunger. Many of these villages have no medical facilities, and the poor people have no means of transportation to reach a doctor. There is no money for medication. Malnutrition is common, healthcare is inadequate, and what is most upsetting is that the schools serving these people are thoroughly deficient. Instead of trying to provide adequate education for the children of these disadvantaged families, the quality of these mostly segregated schools is extremely low. One of the last decisions of the government was to allow people to teach in schools without proper qualifications. Up to now, you had to have a teacher’s diploma to teach in school. Now, you do not. So, these children have no chance to ever get out of these villages and receive an education that would prepare them for the job market. The school reform has lowered compulsory education from age 18 to 16 and abolished the rule that in order to leave school students must have a certificate attesting to the fact that they finished at least the equivalent of eight years of primary school. Now when they are 16 they can leave school and become a wage earner as a member of the large public work force.
2. Hungary was characterized in 1928 by György Oláh as the “country of 3 million beggars.”