700,000 children among Hungary's poorest 2 million

January 13, 2015


Translation of Eszter Prokai’s article “I told Mom it’s not good that we eat sandwiches every day” appearing in abcug.hu on 6 January 2015.

 A recent study paints an alarming picture of the conditions in which children are living today in Hungary.  There is no toilet, no money for medicine, for eyeglasses.  Many must work in addition to attending school, and for this reason cannot rest up at the week-end.   Government measures over the past few years have not helped the every day lives of families with children living in areas of economic hardship.  Among the poorest 2 million people around 700,000 are children.

  • “Why are you always late to school?
  • I often fall asleep in the morning.  I don’t make it to school in time.  They say I’m anemic.  I can really sleep a lot.  Sometimes 17 hours.
  • Are you taking medicine?
  • I should, but I don’t.
  • Why not?
  • My Mom doesn’t buy it.
  • She can’t afford it?
  • No.
  • How much does the medicine cost?
  • HUF 2500
  • A month?
  • Yes.”

The above conversation transpired between the class principle and a tenth grade student at a Budapest vocational high school.  It is just one of many shocking stories collected by the Children’s Assistance Public Association.(Gyereksegély közhasznú egyesület) in its 2012-2013 study.

The several hundred page book draws a comprehensive picture of how children live in Hungary, with particular attention given to those families living in difficult material conditions.  With regard to the general situation, the publication says that child poverty increased 0-10 percent between 2007 and 2010 and 10-20 percent between 2010 and 2013.  In every case the situation of children and families with children is worse than that of others.  And also in nearly every case there was a larger deterioration between 2010 and 2013 than in the years immediately following the crisis, even though nothing took place then either in the interest of protecting the poor.

The authors write that in order to examine children’s living conditions, it is necessary to examine the families’ circumstances.  However, the system of public welfare and the public work program also pays a large role.  In addition to falling incomes, the government adopts measures that violates the rights and dignity of the poor throughout their lives.   These include the conditions for public assistance that vary from local government to local government, often becoming more stringent, such as inspections of the interior of flats or cleanliness, decisions taken on high regarding assistance or public work that cannot be appealed, and numerous changes to financial supports or to the “Erzsébet card”.

Of the poorest 2 million roughly 700,000 are children, of which around 305,000 live in villages.  In general, it can be said that poverty is rather more characteristic of villages than of cities, and this is most certainly the case with children.  The general situation of families with children is bad.  Studies show that the physical living conditions of children living in depressed areas are disastrous.

“We had a child, I really liked him, who went to the toilet every five minutes.  Not because he had to, but because he liked it so much” says one kindergarten director quoted in the study.  One nurse explained that one of the children did not have a toilet at home and for this reason “the child stepped out the door, and pulled down his underwear and squatted wherever he could.  Then he trod on his own excrement while playing soccer.  Incredible!”

The living conditions of expectant mothers in poor families is very bad.  Among newborns the proportion of underweight babies has been around eight percent over the past ten years, which is the highest among European countries.

The relationship between children’s school performance and their family background plays a relevant role in the process by which poverty perpetuates itself.  The most conspicuous form of school failure is when children must repeat a year.  The number of failures among primary school students has barely changed, but there has been a significant decrease in the academic performance of children from poor families, writes the book.

  • Legislators have adopted a number of strategies over the years intended to improve the situation of the poor and children.  However, a large part has not yielded the hoped for results.
  • The material conditions of families living in poverty was not actually helped by any of the measures adopted.  Neither public work wages, nor the minimal increase to regular public supports.
  • Neither changes to the conditions of the so-called “gyed extra” (additional supports paid to woman on maternity leave) or flat construction supports improved the living conditions of the poor.
  • The decrease in household utility costs represented a savings, but not primarily for the poorest.
  • The increase in resources devoted to institutional feeding and to improving children’s health actually did reach its goal and had a positive affect according to researchers.
  • The principle of ensuring equal access to public services could not be completely realized.  22 percent of children under the age of three lived in settlements where there is no public child care.

In the final chapter the class principle of a tenth grade class at a Budapest vocational high school explains how the students live.  The teacher paints a depressing picture of the children’s living conditions, which she believes are alarming but nothing unusual.  “Everyone wants to get a high school diploma, but the road to that is long and there are many obstacles.   They live mercilessly hard lives, but don’t know it, and in this manner they do not consider their plight to be unusual, and, in fact, it isn’t, which is precisely what is alarming.  The majority of vocational students live like this in Hungary, having a similar past, experiencing similar problems, and with similarly poor prospects for the future.   Vocational students are frequently absent and study little. Only if the semester or the year end is approaching do they force themselves to study and try to improve.  They have neither time nor energy for more.  A large part of vocational students work.  There are those who work the odd day, those who work every weekend, but there are also those who work every day after school.  Out of a class of 17 students, 10 work part time or full time, according to a teacher quoted in the book.

Most of those attending school are tired.  In the case of less strict teachers, they lower their heads onto their desks and nap or mess around.  “On Fridays I’m here at school.  I work from 9:30 pm until 6.30 am the next morning.  I get home on Sunday at 6:30 am, sleep, get up, and come to school” says one of the students.

More than a few children have no day off between work and school, no weekend, which means they can never catch up on their sleep.

There are also those in the class who often get sick because of work.  A pizza delivery man.  If its colder, or if its raining, he develops regular sinus and throat infections.  But he still does it.  “In winter I wear two pairs of trousers, three pullovers, and a ski mask. It’s tolerable.  I can make four or five thousand forints (USD 15-20) daily plus tips.  Sometimes I can even make HUF 7000 (USD 25) over the weekend, if I work ten hours a day.  This way I can give some money to my mother, too.”

Often there is no heating or electricity in their homes.  The children hardly spend money on clothes.  These children may not be starving in a strict sense of the word, but neither can it be said that they do not have problems eating.  “I had a small run in at the beginning of the year. I told my Mom that it wasn’t goot that we always east sandwiches and the like.  Then I think she also realized, because now there isn’t always a sandwich.”   Not all families can afford drugs or medicine.

  • “I have to pay for glass now because I ordered them.  I will wear glasses from January.  I never had them before.  The doctor here prescribed them three years ago.
  • Why didn’t you have them made before?
  • The truth is I couldn’t afford them.  Now the doctor says again that I need glasses.  He said if I don’t get them my eye-site is sure to get worse. And it did” says another student.”

Also destroying the lives of children is the fact that there have been significant changes to criminal law and criminal proceedings in the case of minors and children.

  • There is no longer a special court abjudicating the matters of minors
  • The cut-off age for bringing criminal charges has been lowered from 14 to 12 in the case of certain crimes.  The new measures and stricter laws go against the international obligations of the Hungarian state, for example the 1989 Agreement and Basic Law on the Rights of children.
  • Social work in the schools has practically disappeared.  What should belong to the competency of a social worker or a school social worker, that has practically become the responsibility of any well intentioned but untrained policeman.