Snapshots of Austerity Desperation

Terrance Heath

When Greek prime minister Lucas Papademos, in his statement concerning the austerity-driven suicide of 77-year-old pensioner Dimitris Christoulas, called on Greeks to “support those next to us who stand in despair,” he either missed or ignored the same point that austerity boosters here at home blithely ignore. How can people “support those who stand next to us in despair,” when so many have already reached that last stop before oblivion, and those who haven’t yet are being driven there down a wide road called “Desperation”?

What else is Papademos — appointed to ensure that Greeks got austerity, and got little or no say in the matter — to do? He’s there to make sure the people he really works for get what they want. So, the prime minister has to ignore that Greece’s Independence Day celebrations required tight security — such that citizens were banned from entering Syntagma Square the very square where Dimitris Christoulas put a bullet in his brain — because of very real fears that anti-austerity protesters would attack politicians. He has to ignore the reason why 4,000 police officers (plus more than 800 riot police) had to lock down the city of Athens, to ensure things went off without a hitch.

Just as his government ignored the tens of thousands of protestors on its doorstep, to pass he austerity measures, had to recognize the despair inherent in Dimitris Christoulas’ suicide while ignoring the desperation that drove him to it, and how austerity has made desperation part of every day life for many Greeks.

Desperation

As I wrote above, if despair is the last stop before oblivion, desperation is the road to despair. In Greece, austerity measures — which included a 20% cut to the minimum wage, and laying off 150,000 public workers by 2016 — have widened that road and ensured that it is well traveled.

Since imposition of austerity upon Greece, there has been no shortage of news stories the impact on ordinary Greeks.

  • In Athens, police spent five hours talking Lambrousi Harikleia down from a ledge. Harikleia threatened to jump from the the Labor Housing organization building, after another harsh round of cost cutting threatened to lay off workers at the agency where she and her husband worked.
  • Last month, 61-year-old father of two Dimitrios Manikas shot and wounded his former boss and another worker, and took a third worker hostage at a small factory in Greece. Manikas, who had been laid off from his job about seven months earlier, was said not to have eaten for four days, and demanded back pay the company said was not owed to him.
  • Just before Christmas, a teacher in Athens found a note attached to one of her pupils. It read, “I will not be coming to pick up Anna today because I cannot afford to look after her. Please take good care of her. Sorry. Her mother.” This is not an isolated incident, but is becoming more common because austerity has left many Greek parents too poor to care for their children.
  • In the City of Perama, things have gotten so bad that some are calling it a humanitarian crisis. Almost 60% of the population is unemployed, nearly triple the national average. Thousands are unable to buy food, parents often send children to school hungry, and some families have been without electricity for five to eight months.
  • Greek doctors report seeing more sick children, as parents are unable to pay for health care. Drug shortages have made common drugs like aspirin increasingly harder to find.
  • Thousands of Greek workers have left the country in the past year. Applications for work permits to countries like Australia and Canada have doubled. For many, returning to Greece is not on the horizon. One worker put it bluntly: “There is no work, there are no services. What is there to stay for? …Even if we do find jobs, there is no way to earn a sustainable living any more”
  • Support for Greece’s mentally ill has disintegrated after two years of austerity. Staff shortages and facility closures have left many mentally ill stranded on the streets. Many remain there because their families can’t afford to help them.

The Guardian’s Jon Henley travelled through Greece and recorded his experiences in a searing series of reports he titled “Greece on the Breadline.” Reporting a mixture of fury and solidarity among Greeks, hears from them how austerity has changed their lives. In Athens, a woman who uses her professional experience to coach the unemployed asked, “[W]hat kind of society have we become, that we are kicking homeless pregnant women on to the streets?” He finds the school children of Athens are too hungry to underfed to do P.E. In Thessaloniki, a student postponed lessons to get in line for potatoes. Young people in Athens — raised with an emphasis on education and a “career mindset” — spoke of living with their parents again, taking odd jobs just to survive, and declared “We’ve watched our futures go up in smoke.” Across the country, “savage cuts” in Greece’s health services budget have allowed HIV/AIDS and malaria to make a comeback. Newborn testing for up to 40 diseases like cystic fybrosis and sickle cell are “effectively grinding to a halt, ensuring that children will die from diseases that are easily detected and treated.

Is it any wonder that desperation times have led some Greek citizens to commit desperate acts?

Last September, seven months before Dimitris Christoulas sat down in the shadow of Parliament and shot himself in the head, Apostolos Polyzonis set himself on fire outside of a bank in Thessaloniki. Bankrupt and out of work, with just the equivalent of $13 in his pocked, Polyzonis spent his last few dollars on a can of gasoline. He went to the bank that had refused to see him, after recalling a loan for his business — setting off a storm of financial troubles for Plyzonis — and set himself on fire. Polyzonis was saved by police, and eventually recovered.

Polyzonis’ explanation for his act echoes those of other Greeks facing life under sever austerity: “At that moment, I saw my life as worthless, I really didn’t care if I was going to live or die.” Seven months later after his own protest made headlines, Polyzonis says things have only gotten more desperate for ordinary Greeks.

Seven months after setting himself on fire, Polyzonis says more and more Greeks find themselves close to the desperate condition he was in last September.

“The situation is becoming every day worse,” he says. “Every day people lose their jobs, every day people are unable to pay rent for their house, the basics to find something to eat — the last step before doing what I did or what another human being yesterday did in Greece.”

The most recent austerity driven suicide appears to be Savvas Metikidis, a 45-year-old teacher and trade union member who hung himself at his parents home this Saturday. In a New York Times column published the day of Metikidis’ suicide, Frank Bruni recounts the changes austerity brought to Portugal, and asks a question already answered by Greeks like Christoulas, Harikleia, Manikas, Polyzonis, and Metikidis.

What happens when the gap between what people thought lay ahead of them and what they now confront is allowed to widen as quickly and as much as it has in these countries? How do they adjust?

American Style

What happens, indeed.

On this side of the Atlantic, we haven’t experienced the kind of severe austerity imposed on Greek citizens. Not yet, anyway. We’ve only endured the kind of “austerity-by-neglect,” that comes from rescuing Wall Street while letting underwater homeowners drown, and failing to pass a real job creation bill, even as the foreclosure crisis fed the unemployment crisis and forced people from their homes. But as more and more people confront the ever-expanding “gap between what they thought lay ahead of them and what the now confront,” there’s evidence that Americans are coming up with some the same answers as Greek citizens.

To anyone paying attention, the link between the recession and body count on Main Street, is as obvious as the wailing sirens, flashing lights, and crime scene markers that may be coming to a neighborhood near you. The stories of foreclosure driven suicide are as old as the once headline-making suicides of Raymond and Deanna Donaca, Carlene Balderama, the attempted suicide of Addie Polk, and the Karthick Rajaram murder-suicide. It’s also a new as stories of foreclosure-driven “suicide-by-cop” in the cases of James Ferrario and Kurt Aho.

As early as 2008, seven in ten Americans were worried about maintaining their standard of living in the midst of economic crisis. As CAF noted at the time, in a report titled “The Stress Test,” seven years of conservative economic policies leading up to the crisis left living standards under stress after the crisis hit. Nearly four years later, foreclosures are a symptom of our untreated economic sickness, and the American Psychological Associations Annual “Stress in America” report, indicates that money, work and the economy are the most frequently cited causes of stress for Americans — and have been for the past 5 years. It’s also making us mad. The APA reports that “irritability or anger” tops the list of reported symptoms of stress, followed by “feeling nervous or anxious,” and “feeling depressed or sad.”

Foreclosure suicides are just one indicator. “Going postal” has been a frightening reality in American workplaces at least since the term was first coined in 1986, but experts see the recession playing a role in recent incidents of workplace violence like the 2010 shootings in Manchester, Connecticut, and St. Louis, Missouri.

It’s a sign of the times that “Flip This House” has been replaced by “Operation Repo” and “Repo Games” in reality TV ratings. The economic crisis turned out to be an opportunity to turn poverty into entertainment, and apparently the booming repo business made for more entertaining fare than the foreclosure tsunami. (Though the “true crime” genre may yet hold some promise.) But repo isn’t all fun and games. 

Last month, HuffPo’s Dave Jamieson reported that automobile repos have turned deadly. Opening with an item about a repo-gone-bad in my own hometown, Augusta, Georgia, Jamieson reports that Americans don’t have to own a home to fall victim to subprime credit, shady lenders, and securitized debt shenanigans. When the economic crisis left car owners with more debt than they could handle, trouble finding work, and even more trouble making payments, the recession and world of finance collide in America’s driveways. Not to mention our living rooms, and our workplaces.

The Widening Gap

All talk of “recovery” aside, the gap between what Americans thought lay ahead of us and what we now confront in our driveways, living rooms, and workplaces continues to grow unabated. It is not quite the yawning abyss that citizens of Greece confront on a daily basis. Not yet, anyway. But if nothing is done to narrow the gap, Americans will have to keep answering the question Bruni asked in his column: “What happens when What happens when the gap between what people thought lay ahead of them and what they now confront is allowed to widen as quickly and as much as it has in these countries? How do they adjust?”

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