Karl Pfeifer: An interview with Zsuzsa Ferge on poverty in Hungary

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.

The interview

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.

1. http://kisebbsegkutato.tk.mta.hu/uploads/files/archive/311.pdf
2. Hungary was characterized in 1928 by György Oláh as the “country of 3 million beggars.”

October 21, 2017
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Michael Kaplan
Guest

An informative article. Sadly, I have seen only worse and worse since I started coming to Hungary in 1976 with some brief periods of hope. Although communism poisoned any real dialogue about poverty, anti Semitism, let alone anti Roma prejudices, it now appears that a kind of “1984” mentality has effected many, such that Jews and/or Roma are seen as “the enemy of the people”. Meanwhile, poverty continues to take its toll and the country is slipping behind some of its neighbors, despite the endless government propaganda to the contrary.

Observer
Guest

“..the average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita is USD 15 614 a year, less than the OECD average of USD 29 016 a year. ..”

And this is not all, the Better Life index below shows grafically the poverty of the Hun society in many aspects, not just income :

http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/countries/hungary/

Marty
Guest
So 37.5% live below subsistence level and you can imagine those 10-20% who at least statistically live above it. They are dirt poor too. It’s kind of understandable that Fidesz doesn’t deal with with those people. Fidesz is right-wing by denomination and also realized that most of the poor people simply never vote so they are irrelevant to their political calculus. But the left-wing?? There has been no clear message whatsoever formulated by any leftist politician about dealing with the issues of poor or working class people. At least Fidesz shows that it cares about the average joe (mind you poor peopele don’t consider themselves poor, they consider themselves middle income as there’s a stigma attached to being designated “poor”). Fidesz cut utility prices (and will do so before April 2018), cut income taxes, increase pensions and so on. It’s not the financial gain per se that is important but the message that slowly percolates down to everybody. “Fidesz understands our problems and while it is corrupt it does try to do something. At least we know Orban understands our problems. He is rich and corrupt, but he’s still one of us who gets us”. What is it that we… Read more »
Guest

Please read again the nonsense you wrote! Sometimes I feel you’re just a Fidesz troll …
The Roma are convenient scapegoats for Fidesz just like the Jews (Soros and …) and the migrants. This is all so idiotic that my wife says she thinks her compatriots are just crazy and hallucinating. It’s like the pandemic of fake news in the USA – just have a look at snopes.com.
Something similar is sorely needed for Hungary!

PS and just a bit OT – but maybe relevant:
The German SPIEGEL just published an analysis which showed that right wingers (like the AfD voters in Germany) are very susceptible to fake news – many of them will believe absolute idiocies which would be easy to refute.
Here the situation is similar in the USA (starting with Birthers …) and Hungary – being afraid of refugees when they’ve never ever even seen one …

Marty
Guest
wolfi, I’m not sure which part of what I wrote you have problems with. The roma make up 10% of the population while 40-50% are below or just barely above the poverty line, so most of the poor are not roma. Orban’s policy decisions to cut utilities, issue pension bonuses, cut income taxes resulted in a conclusion by many voters that Orban cares about them. This is how voters think. Look, in the US poor voters love the Republicans for “cutting taxes” even if it means that 90% of the tax cuts favor the top 1% and makes the lives of white working class people in West Virgina or Michigan actually worse. They still prefer the Reps. over “tax and spend Democrats”. It’s not rational. Btw the roma aren’t really a scapegoat in Fidesz’ discourse. Actually Orban hasn’t really been overtly anti-Roma at least not in a way that is comparable to the anti-Soros campaigns. The roma are controlled through the public works/fostered work programs. Local mayors receive public work quotas and state subsidies in proportion to their ability to force the roma to vote for Fidesz. And the mayor makes sure that only those get public work opportunities who… Read more »
Guest

Your last sentences are obviously self-contradictory – ok, the stupid Hungarians won’t get it/don’t want to see it.

But my wife just read on index that Orbán promises every pensioner an additional 10 000 HUF for Xmas- and she started to laugh hysterically about the idiot and the idiots, yes one small shopping cart at the Lidl (but only if you fill it with inexpensive Hungarian crap, not the good stuff they sell too …), and all your worries are gone …

Guest

“It’s kind of understandable that Fidesz doesn’t deal with with those people.”

It’s unforgivable.

Marty
Guest

Right-wing parties never care too much about the poor. I think it’s more unforgivable that left-wing parties don’t deal with them. Otherwise I agree.

Guest

More or less unforgivable is nonsense like more or less pregnant.

Ferenc
Guest

“Right-wing parties never care too much about the poor”
RW parties never care for other humans, only claim to help, because of …….. the votes…
examples? well we’ve got djT, little OV, BaBaBabics, the turk, an so on!!
PS: your next line is BS and as usual most of your writing seems in support of above shortlist

petofi
Guest

Dear Marty,

Do you think that voting, in Hungary, really matters?

(How Americanus of you!)

Marty
Guest

There are two options only as you know. Stage a violent revolution or vote. In Hungary in 2017 no democrat, liberal or leftwing is capable of being really violent. Violence these days (remember the Hungarian events of October 2006 or the Ukrainian revolution) is the exclusive domain of the nationalistic right-wing which is (A) still firmly behind Orban and (B) is anyway controlled tightly by domestic intelligence which is 100% loyal to Orban.

As a result voting is important — even if the system is rigged.

Orban will win the elections and anyway will not hand over power voluntarily ever.

But there is a huge difference between Orban getting 65% of the votes cast or only 25%. Orban wins in both cases but the difference makes all the difference in the world.

If Orban eventually ended up with 2/3s of the mandates (which would happen if Fidesz received 40% of the votes cast) then God be merciful to Hungary.

In that sense voting matters, yes, more than ever.

Istvan
Guest

Do any readers know whether Ivan Szelényi has updated his book Making Capitalism without Capitalists since 2000? The evolution of the oligarchs and the Russian model under Putin would indicate that a ruling class has now solidified in Hungary and it is under the tutelage of Orban.

Andy
Guest

Zs Ferge TV interview (in Hung. Lang) on this popic with Gyorgy Balo) http://rtl.hu/rtlklub/magyarulbaloval/a-szegenyseg-arcai
— and thanks to Karl Pfeiffer bringing us this topic in English on Hung. Spectr. !

wrfree
Guest

With regard to hatred of migrants, foreigners and the entity of ‘Soros’ it’s pretty evident that we can add hatred of the poor. It is shown in the sense that in the scheme of things it doesn’t require much to ameliorate some of the hardships to get just a bit of some improvement. Some attention can go a long way. Yet with nothing in then it leads to nothing out.

And the Magyar rich and how they bagged their gold? Considering the moral sense in the country today it begs the question of how guilty do they feel.

At this time the country sociologically speaking suffers from a deviance that pervades entire sectors of social relationships. Going the illiberal route unfortunately has turned leaders into virtual deviants looking odd within a supposed democratic community. Leaders as ‘outsiders’ hating other outsiders. Looks the current norm. And those hatreds will keep on sowing the divisions as VO’s obsession marches on its way.

petofi
Guest

HATRED is the staple of moronic Hungarians diet. They feast on it and, in the exercising of this passion, they totally forget that they’re being ‘wooed, screwed, and tattooed’ with the regularity of the morning dew…

Member

OT:
TIbor Szanyi just threw this cupcake at Fidesz. If MSZP comes up with more than 7% in the next poll, I’ll be surprised.
https://444.hu/2017/10/22/meglincselt-avos-kepevel-es-az-unnep-szo-idezojelbe-rakasaval-koszontotte-szanyi-tibor-oktober-23-at

Aida
Guest

I want to wish you all a quiet and dignified anniversary of the gruesome and highly instructive events of 61 years ago. Until 1989 it had made Hungary the best off country in every way in the Soviet block. Thereafter it has helped to deepen the divisions in Hungarian society and also it was used to generate some more. My advice would be to stop all public commemorations.

Member

Pointless. If they didn’t have 1956, they’d use 1848. If they didn’t have 1848, they’d use August 20. If they didn’t have August 20, they’d concoct something else. Let them continue with their shameful 1956 games. Better the devil you know.

Observer
Guest

In the wake of 1956 Kàdàr managed to make Hun “the merriest barrack in the camp” of the Soviet block. Now Orban managed to make Hun the saddest barrack in free Europe. Quite an chievement.

Ferenc
Guest

Fully agree!!
Have lately been thinking about this, and what seems typical of undemocratic Hungarian leaders is to push the Hungarian society in the opposite direction compared to neighboring countries and basic allies.
Now the question is, if above observation is valid for earlier times also? I don’t know, don’t have enough historical knowledge to judge…

Observer
Guest

Ferenc

I haven’t noticed any such tendency, imview the Hun psyche is just more prickly, jumpy, inconsistent and shifty and treacherous at the same time, the Asian streak perhaps. That makes for less rational decisions and poor diplomacy, for kind of “all or nothing” approach and, consequentially leads to the tragic “God strikes the Magyar” experience.
To be sure, there never was anything democratic, consensual or united in Hun history I know of.

petofi
Guest

Pssst. In Hungarian society, there has never been anything other than ‘divisions’….(just thought I’d let you in on that-)

Sigurd
Guest

Clearly, the solution to the poverty is to open the borders to more and more immigrants. It sounds like the tax base has more than enough bandwidth to absorb extra welfare for them – food, housing, etc.

I’m sure the Hungarians wouldn’t want to be branded racists and fascists since that notion must be much more important to them than surviving and living above the subsistence level.

petofi
Guest

The Hungarians will believe anything and everything. They still consider themselves innocent of the 470,000 jews sent on a paid holiday to Auscwhitz…

Observer
Guest

Sigurd
To your nonsensical Insinuation let me remind all that Hun enjoyed the second best place (after Slovenia) in EEurope 25 years ago. It sank to the present conditions without a single migrant, (but those from Transylvania). On top of that while Soros giveth Mészaros taketh, big time.

Guest

” I listen to Orban and his speeches and they are music to my ears.”

Orban: “Don’t listen to what I say. Look at what I do.”

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