Spain children face worsening poverty amid crisis

Madrid - Even before Spain's economic crisis engulfed her home, Patricia Martin struggled to provide for her three children on her husband's street sweeper salary of around 900 euros a month.

But after his hours were slashed and his income halved two years ago, the family has slipped dangerously towards a life of destitution in their tiny flat in Vallecas, a working class neighbourhood in southern Madrid.

The couple is facing eviction for not paying their rent for over a year and relies on food banks to feed their children.

When it rains, Martin keeps her children at home instead of having them walk one hour to school because they cannot afford the bus fare.

"If I don't have a snack to send with them I pretend I forgot to prepare it," the 30-year-old said as her son, aged 7, and two daughters, aged 8 and 10, played in a playground near their home.

"They don't say anything but it's very hard," she added, her eyes swelling with tears. "I try to make the difficult situation they are living as easy to take as possible."

Six years after a massive property boom went bust, wiping out millions of jobs, Spain is facing a sharp rise in child poverty as government spending cuts and sky-high unemployment take their toll.

The number of children at risk of poverty in the country has jumped by half a million since 2007, before the start of the economic crisis, to 2.5 million, according to a study by Spanish children's charity Educo.

Schools facing the brunt

At the San Pedro and San Felices school in Burgos in northern Spain, a Catholic charter school, teachers say more children are coming to class without having showered because the water has been turned off at home due to unpaid bills, the school's director, Father Modesto Diez, said.

"They lack electricity and water at home, they live in deficient housing, their basic needs are not met. They come to class badly dressed and without eating properly," he said.

Tensions are rising as a result. Children's charities say the economic downturn has caused cases of child abuse to soar.

A nationwide youth hotline run by the ANAR Foundation on Tuesday reported a "worrying" rise in the number of calls it received last year from children suffering physical or psychological abuse at home.

"We believe one of the reasons for this increase in abuse is unemployment and the economic difficulties faced by families, which heightens tensions and increases aggression in families," the group's programme director, Benjamin Ballesteros, told a news conference.

Many parents cannot afford to pay for textbooks and have pulled their children out of the school's canteen service, which provides a hot lunch every day for a monthly fee of 102 euros.

'Like the 50s'

Over 100 children used the service last year. Only 25 are signed up this year, of which 10 are having their fees covered by Educo.

On a recent visit over half the tables in the canteen were empty at lunchtime.

A group of 22 pupils, aged 4 to 11, were clustered on five tables in a corner as they quietly finished eating a lunch of baked fish, rice, peeled pears and milk.

Many children now go home at lunchtime "and eat whatever is available", Diez said as he surveyed the empty canteen.

Spain's unemployment rate of almost 2%, combined with a drop in salaries and sharp government spending cuts to social programmes has led to a dramatic reversal in living standards, he said.

"It's like in the 50s and 60s, when families had to make do with the income that they had, they worked long hours for low pay," he said.

"We are talking about middle class people, couples where both were working because construction employed a lot of people. They had two salaries of a 1 000 euros, 1 200 euros a month. That has been reduced to no salary at all in many cases."

Educo, which had focused on developing nations like El Salvador and India, said it launched its school lunch subsidy programme in Spain in September after it became aware that more and more Spanish children were surviving on a diet of just rice, potatoes and bread.

"These are the 'new poor'. They are people who until now did not need aid and now they do," said Pepa Domingo, Educo's director of social programmes. "It's very distressing."

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