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Greek Family and Welfare Provision

posted by Philomila Tsoukala

I have argued previously (here) that the EU/IMF/ECB insistence on “flexibilizing” labor law in Greece overlooked the basic structure of the Greek private market, which consists overwhelmingly of small, family owned and operated businesses, with ultra –flexible wage arrangements (a wife’s labor, especially, is often unremunerated). Add de facto non-enforcement of labor law even in the tiny segment it applied to and the massive informal sector and you end up with one of the most flexible markets, labor cost-wise, in Europe. Moreover, despite the infamous Greek welfare “drones” in the media, Greece does not have a welfare regime comparable to the rest of Europe. In fact, much like in the US, the Greek family internalizes most of the cost of basic services such as education, healthcare, housing. State employment and pensions have for a long time played the role of a substitute for the lack of such a welfare regime, for those of course who could access these jobs, usually on the basis of clientelist relations. The basic structure of state employment included jobs distributed widely among the client base of the governing party, with wages too low as remuneration and too high as welfare, along with privileged wages and perks for a narrow elite group within the public sector. Average wage and pension levels remained well below European levels before the crisis, while consumer prices had skyrocketed and remain among the highest in Europe even today.

All this may help clarify the compounded impact of the austerity measures on the average Greek. Dramatic wage cuts in both the public and the private sector, along with a largely successful program of taxation mainly targeting the salaried and small businesses transformed private sector workers and the average public sector worker into a newly struggling lower middle class or the newly poor-depending where they started from. The tax campaign also led to the closure of tens of thousands of businesses, while consumer prices remained steadily high. During all this, the family has been providing basic welfare except with less capacity to absorb the cost as unemployment skyrockets and the wages of those who have jobs are slashed. According to a friend, the new trend in one small city in northern Greece is for families to take in elderly relations, aunts, uncles, in return for their pension. People in their mid thirties, who had barely made it out of the parental household before the crisis are now moving back in. In Athens, which has been hit the worst, new forms of solidarity are being invented everyday (such as the “social kitchen” advertised here), but redistribution within the family still remains the main shock absorber. Overall capacity for shock absorption, however, may be busting at the seams as can be seen from Sunday’s events.

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