The report of the Spanish Economic and Social Council (CES) 2011, presented a few days ago, stated that Spain is among the countries registering the highest increases in population at risk of poverty and social exclusion, having gone from 23.4% in 2009 to 25.5% in 2010 (latest data published). In presenting the report the president of CES, Marcos Peña, described the country’s situation as “terrifying”.
Last Tuesday the director of Caritas Madrid, July Beamonte, went even further in saying that the poverty level in the country is comparable to that experienced by nations like Spain in the aftermath of its civil war, or Germany after the World War II. The statement seems exaggerated on comparing GDP per capita then and now, but is understandable in someone like Mr. Beamonte, who is in daily contact with poverty and is perfectly familiar with these periods. Certain situations in some of the poorer pockets of the population may very well remind him of those days 60 years ago. In any case, according to the latest reading from the barometer of Spanish Center of Sociological Research, CIS (May 2012), about 28% of the Spanish population consider their personal economic situation bad (19.7%) or very bad (8.3%) and 50, 6% only average.
The situation of poverty created by the crisis and the subsequent sharp increase in unemployment (now close to 5 million, a rate of around 24% of the working population), is a matter of much interest, and not just here – I was asked about this in an interview for a program broadcast by BBC Radio 4 last Sunday (available online: from 13:30 min. from the beginning). They were also interested in how Church is dealing with the situation.
The Catholic Church uses its authority to urge those who are able to act on the causes of poverty and can facilitate the creation of jobs to do so, and, above all, reminds Christians of their duty to care for the poor. In addition, there are the charitable actions of the faithful, who are the very people that constitute the Church, either individually or through different NGOs. The most visible action is institutional and carried out especially through Caritas, the charity organization of the Catholic Church, by far the most important organization of this type in the country. Its work is widely recognized and highly appreciated.
Recent data may help us understand the gravity of the situation and the work of Caritas. It has been reported that there are 11 million Spaniards at risk of poverty and some 30 000 homeless persons. In addition, there are 580,000 households with no income. According to the latest issue of the Observatory of Social Reality of the institution, Caritas has gone from serving 370,251 people in 2007 to in excess of a million in 2011. In the past year, one third of people Caritas attended had sought help for the first time in their life. Most were single parents and people living alone, but also many young couples with children, about 30 to 44 years old – an age that should be productive. They have little income and are at risk of losing their home. There is an especially high growth in the number of people who have exhausted their unemployment benefits. The report also notes that 44 percent of those harboured have been, on average, seeking assistance from the institution for three years or more. Caritas has a large network, and its nodes are basically the parishes. Each has a local section, which collects and distributes donations. These parochial bodies also serve Caritas at the level of the diocese, which, in turn, supports the work of Caritas nationally and internationally. . The labor is focused mainly on helping vulnerable groups and on combating social exclusion, with particular attention given to the homeless or unemployed. A significant proportion of its spending is in direct aid to individuals and families, and to a similarly important degree to employment and training projects, while a lesser amount is employed to maintain its social and family network.
Caritas is supported largely by donations and voluntary subscriptions (approximately 70% of funding) and to a much lesser extent by grants from the various public administrations for specific projects, from the option given on income tax declarations, and from contributions of users. Although donations have increased, Caritas has had to resort to selling some of its assets in the present emergency, though aware that this may jeopardize the work of the organization in the future..
The personal commitment of many people is also a great asset to Caritas. It has 60 000 volunteers in Spain who generously donate on average two or three hours a week of work, in the form of personal attention, the diligent provision of soup kitchens, and so on. It has been said that if a financial payment for this work were provided, it would cost €170 million annually, but in fact, these volunteers provide much more: proximity, understanding and warmth, and always with great discretion.
A final but important issue is what is the inner strength which moves Caritas? There are volunteers who are non-believers, but these are few (less than 4%, according to a study which, although limited, is the only one thus far conducted). Most volunteers are motivated by faith and the love that corresponds to their neighbor. If faith can move mountains, here, through the volunteers of Caritas, it is also helping to move the mass of poverty created by the crisis.