A Cautionary Tale: The true cost of austerity and inequality in Europe | Austerity | Economic Inequality

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European austerity programmes have dismantled the mechanisms that reduce inequality and enable equitable growth. With inequality and poverty on the rise, Europe is facing a lost decade. An additional 15 to 25 million people across Europe could face the prospect of living in poverty by 2025 if austerity measures continue. Oxfam knows this because it has seen it before. The austerity programmes bear a striking resemblance to the ruinous structural adjustment policies imposed on Latin America, South-East Asia, and sub-Sahara Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. These policies were a failure: a medicine that sought to cure the disease by killing the patient. They cannot be allowed to happen again. In A Cautionary Tale: The true cost of austerity and inequality in Europe Oxfam calls on the governments of Europe to turn away from austerity measures and instead choose a path of inclusive growth that delivers better outcomes for people, communities, and the environment. Oxfam has also produced a series of country case studies on the damaging effects of austerity. These cover France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the UK, and are available to download below. Oxfam's report,
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  174 OXFAM BRIEFING PAPER SEPTEMBER 2013 www.oxfam.org   A 15M Movement protest against austerity measures in Madrid, May 2011. © Miguel Parra A CAUTIONARY TALE The true cost of austerity and inequality in Europe European austerity programmes have dismantled the mechanisms that reduce inequality and enable equitable growth. With inequality and poverty on the rise, Europe is facing a lost decade. An additional 15 to 25 million people across Europe could face the prospect of living in poverty by 2025 if austerity measures continue. Oxfam knows this because it has seen it before. The austerity programmes bear a striking resemblance to the ruinous structural adjustment policies imposed on Latin America, South-East Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. These policies were a failure: a medicine that sought to cure the disease by killing the patient. They cannot be allowed to happen again. Oxfam calls on the governments of Europe to turn away from austerity measures and instead choose a path of inclusive growth that delivers better outcomes for people, communities, and the environment.  2 The wave of economic austerity that has swept Europe in the wake of the Great Recession is at risk of doing serious and permanent damage to the continent's long-cherished social model. As economists, including my-self, have long predicted, austerity has only crippled Europe's growth, with improvements in fiscal positions that are always disappointing. Worse, it is contributing to inequality that will make economic weakness longer-lived, and needlessly contributes to the suffering of the jobless and the poor for many years. Oxfam's report, A Cautionary Tale: The true cost of austerity and inequality in Europe  , makes an important contribution to assessing the high and long-lasting costs of these ill-conceived policies. Professor Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate in Economics and former Chief Economist at the World Bank   3 SUMMARY Europe has often seen itself as a place where the social contract balances growth with development. A place where public services aim to ensure everyone has access to a high-quality education and no one need live in fear of falling ill. A place where the rights of workers, and particularly of women, are respected and supported, and where societies care for the weakest and the poorest; where the market has been harnessed to benefit society, rather than the other way round. However, this idyllic social model has been under threat for some time; income inequality was increasing in many countries even before the financial crisis began. Now, the European model is under attack from ill-conceived austerity policies sold to the public as the cost of a stable, growing economy, for which all are being asked to pay. Left unchecked, these measures will undermine Europe’s social gains, creating divided countries and a divided continent, and entrenching poverty for a generation. The unprecedented bailout of Europe’s financial institutions may have saved its banking system, but it also significantly increased public debts. They assumed that austerity policies  –  singularly focused on balancing budgets and reducing deficits  –  would restore market confidence and ultimately lead to job creation and renewed economies. In most countries, this has not happened. After almost three years, austerity is failing on its own terms and continues to exact high social costs. The experiences of the UK, Spain, Portugal, and Greece shows that the harsher the austerity, the higher the increase in debt ratio. 1  A blind focus on reducing debt above all else has ignored the fact that growth can still occur during relatively high levels of debt and that any new growth in the economy must be inclusive and for the benefit of all.  Austerity programmes implemented across Europe  –  based on short-sighted, regressive taxes and deep spending cuts, particularly to public services, such as education, health and social security  –  have dismantled the mechanisms that reduce inequality and enable equitable growth. The poorest have been hit hardest, as the burden of responsibility for the excesses of past decades is passed to those most vulnerable and least to blame. Now, leading proponents of austerity, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), are beginning to recognize that harsh austerity measures have not led to the expected results, and have harmed both growth and equality. 2  European nations are suffering record levels of long-term and youth unemployment, with a generation of young people facing years of  joblessness to come. As the real value of average incomes continues to plummet, falling fastest in countries that have implemented aggressive spending cuts, even those in work can look to a future where they are significantly poorer than their parents. Almost one in 10 working households in Europe now lives in poverty. In 2011, 120 million people across the EU faced the prospect of living in With inequality and poverty on the rise, Europe is facing a lost decade. Oxfam has seen the impact of austerity measures before.  4 poverty. Oxfam calculates this could rise by at least 15 million, and by as much as 25 million, as a result of continued austerity measures. Women will be the hardest hit. All the while, the richest have seen their share of total income grow, as the poorest are seeing theirs fall. If current trends continue some countries in Europe will soon have levels of inequality that rank among the highest in the world. Throughout Oxfam’s history it has campaigned not just to h ighlight poverty and suffering, but, just as importantly, to highlight the policies and politics that are creating this poverty. Oxfam can no longer stand by while such poverty and suffering are being created in Europe, and, through falling European aid budgets and lower consumer spending, all over the world. The European experience bears striking similarities to the structural adjustment policies imposed on Latin America, South-East Asia, and sub-Saharan African in the 1980s and 1990s. Countries in these regions received financial bailouts from the IMF and the World Bank after agreeing to adopt a range of policies including public-spending cuts, the nationalization of private debt, reductions in wages, and a debt management model in which repayments to creditors of commercial banks took precedence over measures to ensure social and economic recovery. These policies were a failure; a medicine that sought to cure the disease by killing the patient.  As part of global civil society, Oxfam fought hard against these policies, which forced the pain of economic slowdown on to those least able to bear it. Structural adjustment policies led to stagnating incomes and rising poverty in many countries, scarring generations across the world. Poverty in Indonesia took 10 years to return to pre-crisis levels. In Latin America, the incomes of ordinary people were the same in the mid-1990s as they had been in 1980. Vital services, such as education and health, were cut back or privatized, excluding the poorest and particularly harming women. Meanwhile, the share of income of the richest in society increased rapidly. In spite of this cautionary tale, austerity is being aggressively pursued in Europe, with scant regard for the lessons of the past. These lessons suggest a bleak future for Europe’s poorest people, and warn of the harmful impacts for society as a whole. SUMMARY RECOMMENDATIONS It does not have to be this way. There are clear alternatives to the current policy of austerity. For a start, the problem of the European public debt must be tackled through a transparent arbitration process, which might include debt restructuring or cancellation. Further, the underlying flaws in the financial system, which the economic crisis brought to light, must be also addressed. Oxfam calls on European governments to do more than merely adjust existing austerity measures. An additional 15 to 25 million people across Europe could face the prospect of living in poverty by 2025 if austerity measures continue. It could take between 10 to 25 years for poverty to return to pre-2008 levels in Europe.
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