The Beautiful and the Damned
March 5, 2016 § Leave a comment
A not uncommon occurrence on the streets of Budapest: a well-dressed local heading off somewhere, swiping across the screen of his latest smartphone whilst a less fortunate citizen fishes through a garbage can for any scraps of food. This contrasting, and frankly despairing, image mirrors and serves as an indicator for the state of the nation as a whole.
A walk down memory lane
Hungary was hit hard in 2008, forcing it to seek a rescue package from the IMF and the EU.* Wages decreased; people lost their jobs; and some, unable to afford their mortgage payments, were forced to move back in with their parents. However, according to a report by the European Commission in June of 2015**, the country showed a growth of 3.3% in 2014; unemployment rates fell; and inflation has been falling since 2012. As a result, after several bleak years, the locals felt like they had a little more money in their wallets.***
Luxury in the time of austerity
“The bars are fuller, new restaurants are popping up, and people look a little happier too,” noted a Hungarian emigre friend of mine. And he’s right about that; it’s something I’ve noticed over the last five and half years: the economic situation has improved. But another friend, who’s decided to remain in the country, was quick to repudiate our merry views. She drove the point home with cold pragmatism: “Don’t be fooled, the situation is far from rosy.” Whatever financial improvements have been made are quite superficial, with money being concentrated in the hands of a few. The glitzy, shining exterior on view in the capital belies the turmoil within: there is an ever widening rift between the rich and poor, with the middle class crumbling. Those that can have moved on to greener pastures, whilst for others only one option exists: to keep their heads down and try to survive. A reality all to familiar to people in this part of the world.
As the EC report goes on to note: “The surge in growth (3.8% in the first half of 2014), however, was supported by temporary measures and factors…” and predicts that: “Economic activity has started to slow down slightly in the second half of 2014 and is expected to further decelerate until 2016.” (“Macroeconomic imbalances”, p.3).
Keep in mind that my observances are limited to Budapest; from what I’ve heard certain regions and towns, particularly to the east, can best be described as ghetto-like. Even in the capital, shops and shopping complexes filled with wares and bored sales personnel, but without a single customer, are a frequent sight. Above-mentioned emigre’s father continues to work at the age of 77, because retirement is not an option. He needs the money.
Where the grass is green and the girls are pretty
That gains have been made is true, but the long term prospects seem grim. Much, much more needs to be done. Ultimately what is in Hungary’s interest is not the acquisition of wealth by a few, but a distribution of it amongst the populace. In countries where the latter is true life satisfaction and happiness amongst their citizens are higher. No matter how well-off one is it’s hard to be inured to the sight of a fellow human being cold, miserable, and hungry.
* Wikipedia contributors. “Economy of Hungary.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 24 Jan. 2016. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.
** Macroeconomic imbalances – Country Report Hungary 2015 by the Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs, European Commission.
*** Byrne, Andrew. “‘Orbanomics’ Confounds Critics as Hungary’s Economy Recovers – FT.com.” Financial Times. 9 June 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.