Busting the myth

WHENEVER economic hardship culminates people, tend to pick a scapegoat – a vessel to pour their frustration into. In Slovakia, the country’s 403,000-strong Roma population most frequently plays this unfortunate role. Whenever foreigners who haven’t been in contact with the Roma ask about this socially vulnerable group, many Slovaks readily offer their insights: instead of working, they sponge off the country’s social system, thus contributing to the country’s economic problems.

Myths about the burden that the jobless Roma impose on public finances have taken enormous proportions in Slovakia and are being readily shared by neo-Nazi groups, frustrated and uninformed Slovaks and politicians, who, lured by populist trends, resort to soft racism. Misguided by prejudices, some Slovaks argue that human rights groups, activists, journalists and even some politicians, refuse to call the country’s economic and social problems by their real name out of what they assume is false political correctness.

Busting the Roma welfare myth, which is not only deeply discriminatory and bordering on racism, but also factually wrong, has been one of the toughest challenges that any journalist covering the Roma and the welfare system faces. Part of the problem is that for the part of the Slovak population which feeds on these myths – which are often passed on to the younger generation – cares little about facts and numbers.

The Roma problem is first of all a social problem and not a fiscal one, says a recent study by the Institute for Economic and Social Studies (INESS) released on October 22. The think-tank looked into numbers provided by the Central Office of Labour, Social Affairs and Family, social insurer Sociálna Poisťovňa and the Atlas of Roma Communities to conclude that fiscal costs of welfare paid in districts that have a two-thirds Roma population makes up 2.2 percent of public spending, which is €578 million.

According to the analysis, some €270 million – or just 1 percent – of all public expenditures is paid in the form of welfare to all eligible recipients, and that means not only Roma. The think-tank made an interesting comparison: families with more than three children are barely receiving €27 million through welfare in material need, which is the same sum the government allocated for the construction of the National Football Stadium.

Anyone with a functioning long-term memory would readily recall the murky 2008 sale of Slovakia’s carbon dioxide emission quotas to a garage firm in which the state has lost approximately €47 million. It is just on the long list of corruption scandals in which people with links to the ruling few got shamefully rich.

The European Commission estimates Slovakia’s grey economy at 15.5 percent of GDP, but it seems that for many, the volume of welfare given to Roma families remain a much bigger concern, even though the Roma, due to their miserable living conditions and lack of housing, are not even eligible for all the welfare that is available.

For example, as The Slovak Spectator pointed out in its earlier report, state contributions for housing are only available to people with a legal connection to their houses, while one-third of Roma live in homes that are considered illegal, according to the Atlas of Roma Communities. Thus the myth that Roma families receive benefits to finance housing could be easily busted if those contributing to the spread of these myths would be willing to listen.

In its study INESS finds that child allowances are paid for 160,000 Roma children totalling around €44 million annually, while 24,000 receivers of parental allowances were of Roma ethnicity and that in 2012 a total of €57 million was spent on this purpose. For comparison, every year the government spends €65 million on paying Christmas bonuses to pensioners, according to INESS.

The think-tank argues that the annual fiscal costs of districts with high concentration of the Roma population do not even reach the one-and-a-half month’s worth of costs of what the social insurer Sociálna Poisťovňa spends on paying out old-age pensions.

While the findings of the study may fail to convince people with anti-Roma sentiments who trust neither numbers nor facts, journalists and the media should keep trying to bust the welfare myth. Sadly, the media itself often contributes to deepening these myths. In doing so, many search for the reasons behind their economic misery within the most vulnerable communities, instead of holding politicians more accountable.

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