The failure of Spain’s government to respond adequately to the sharp increase in poverty during the Covid-19 pandemic has left tens of thousands of people in desperate conditions.
The 63-page report, “‘We can’t live like this’: Spain’s Failure to Protect Rights Amid Rising Pandemic-Linked Poverty,” documents the enduring weaknesses in Spain’s social security system. Efforts by the authorities to supplement a weak safety net have fallen short, leaving people unable to afford essentials. The violations of people’s rights to food, social security, and an adequate standard of living could worsen as global food and fuel costs spiral. This research is the first in a series of investigations in Europe into people’s right to an adequate standard of living in the context of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and rapidly increasing living costs across the globe.
“The economic storm that came with the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the lives of people on low incomes in Spain, leaving households unable to afford food, even before the current cost-of-living crisis,” said Kartik Raj, Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Government efforts to supplement an inadequate social safety net have offered too little, too late, and to too few, meaning thousands of people still rely on emergency food aid, and parents are skipping meals so their kids can eat.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 52 people in food bank lines in Madrid and Barcelona, as well as 22 food bank staff and volunteers, specialists from nongovernmental groups and academics, and analyzed government and other data relating to the social safety net and food aid distribution.
National data show that the Covid-19 pandemic hit low-income districts of Spanish cities like Madrid and Barcelona particularly hard in terms of infection rates. The economic shutdown in these densely populated areas, insufficiently mitigated by social protection systems, made matters worse.
People’s earnings dried up and they were left unable to afford food and other basic supplies. Many faced delays receiving pandemic-linked furlough payments and responses to their social security support applications. People earning a living in the informal economy were hit doubly hard as they were excluded from Spain’s contribution-based social security programs or furloughs.
Families with children, older people dependent on state pensions, migrants and asylum seekers, and workers in sectors with large representation of women such as the hospitality and seasonal employment sectors, were affected disproportionately. Single mothers in particular spoke of skipping meals to ensure that their children had enough to eat. Pensioners interviewed in food lines said that social security support, which was not adequate prior to the pandemic, was now even less so.
Data from the country’s main network of food banks, (Federación Española de Bancos de Alimentos, FESBAL), showed a 48 percent increase in food distributed in 2020 compared with 2019, approaching the highest levels of food aid distributed since 2014, when Spain’s unemployment rates peaked following the global financial crisis. Regional and national food bank data showed that although demand dropped in 2021, it remained about 20 percent higher than in 2019.
Faced with growing food lines, and rising unemployment and poverty at the onset of the pandemic, Spain’s national government in May 2020 created a national Minimum Vital Income (Ingreso Mínimo Vital, IMV) program, allowing applicants to claim between €451 and €1,015 per month based on household size. However, the level of support is too low to guarantee an adequate standard of living, Human Rights Watch found. And the IMV system itself has run into a series of problems.
Ana Belén, 42, from Puente de Vallecas in Madrid, lives with her adult son and 6-year-old daughter, and ran a bar until the pandemic-related closures led her to shut her business for good. “I receive the IMV,” she said. “It’s €465 each month. Our rent is €600. We can’t buy anything. Every month begins with a debt. There is nothing in the fridge. I can’t put in words what the impact of that on me is.”
The social security system struggled to cope with demand for the new IMV program, exacerbated by the backlog of applications from office closures early in the pandemic. As a result, people went without adequate social security and social assistance support, in some cases for several months, and faced hunger as their money ran out.
Even though the government sought to accelerate the deployment of the IMV program – an existing election promise prior to the pandemic – its flawed rollout failed to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic. Slow bureaucracy, arbitrary exclusions built into the criteria, a flawed means-testing calculation method, and high levels of refusal of IMV applications contributed to the problem. There was also confusion about how the national program would interact with existing social assistance programs in Spain’s autonomous communities.
Analysis by investigative data journalists showed that by the end of March 2021, nine months into the IMV program, three quarters of applicants had been turned down. By the second year of its operation, data showed that IMV was reaching only about 6 percent of the people the Spanish government considers “at risk of poverty or social exclusion.”
Bold government action now can ensure a better and fairer outcome for the rights of people in Spain and give them the economic resilience to weather future crises, Human Rights Watch said. The government should embed in domestic law protections for specific socioeconomic rights, including the right to an adequate standard of living and to food, and significantly reform the IMV and social security support more generally.
The Spanish government should speed up its process of assisting people who need IMV support and eliminate restrictive eligibility criteria. It should reassess and revise social security support rates, including age-related pensions. Autonomous community governments should similarly revise and reassess their social security support rates, indexing them transparently to cost-of-living measures, including ensuring access to adequate, affordable food.
“The Spanish government’s measures to blunt the edges of the financial shock that followed the public health emergency, however well-intentioned, have not staved off growing hunger,” Raj said. “Spain needs a coordinated, well-funded social protection system that ensures people who need such support can live in dignity, have their rights protected, and are not left to live hand to mouth.”