Austerity Threatens Europe's Vaunted Social Policy

Europe's four years of austerity are taking a toll not just on residents who are suffering from an unraveling of the Continent's famous social welfare programs, but the political parties that created them as some seek solutions from fringe groups.
June 15, 2013, 5am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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David C. Unger writes about the sociological and political effects resulting from "(f)our years of grinding austerity across much of the Continent". The social welfare programs that have defined much of Europe - in stark contrast to the U.S. where the social safety net, in large part, is reserved for the most needy, appears to be unraveling. 

After World War II, Socialist and Christian Democratic parties jointly fashioned safety net programs that reduced poverty, enhanced living standards, reduced inequality and made European social policy the envy of much of the developed world. That social contract now appears to be shredded.

The victims are not just the poor, though they are the most visible.

Newspapers carry heartbreaking stories of families evicted from modest apartments, people losing their jobs and then their health benefits, young and not-so-young women turning to prostitution to make ends meet, even suicides by self-immolation.

Politically, "Europe’s mainstream center-left parties, which long positioned themselves as defenders of society’s most vulnerable, are taking it in the teeth politically." Unger writes that these parties "are increasingly out of touch" with those that have lost the most from the austerity programs - whether it be young people out of work of residents losing their homes.  

The result is that many disillusioned people are turning to populist, even far-right groups "as diverse as Greece’s neo-fascist Golden Dawn, Italy’s anarchist Five Star Movement, France’s anti-Arab National Front....Their one shared feature is that they have little respect for the liberal democratic values that have defined and shaped postwar Europe."

Unger sees similarities to today's austerity programs - where cuts to social services are made in the name of reducing national debt, to post WWI Europe. He ends his piece with this somber warning:

In the decades after the First World War, most continental European governments responded to economic crisis with variants of austerity and ended up losing liberal democracy. That is a history that Europe must take care not to repeat. 

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Published on Sunday, June 9, 2013 in The New York Times - Sunday Observer
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