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In Spain, an extended family weathers hard times

A jobless worker in Madrid and his family get by with help from the Spanish government and his wife's parents. Only his father-in-law draws a paycheck.

August 02, 2012|By Lauren Frayer, Los Angeles Times
  • Volunteers serve meals at a charity dining hall in Valencia, Spain. Close family ties are another factor that has enabled the nation to withstand a nearly 25% unemployment rate.
Volunteers serve meals at a charity dining hall in Valencia, Spain. Close… (Alberto Saiz / Associated…)

MADRID — With a teenager in a wheelchair and four other children younger than 12, Tania Maroto can't work outside the home. For years, her family got by on her husband's construction paycheck and social security for their disabled daughter.

But her husband, Jose Ramon Fernandez, lost his job a year ago. And now even his unemployment benefits are going to shrink as part of the most drastic budget cuts in Spain's  democratic history.

All they have left, it seems, is family.

Living with parents and grandparents well into adulthood used to be a tradition in much of southern Europe. Now, in the throes of recession across the continent and strangling debts amassed in the boom times, it is becoming an economic necessity.

The unemployment rate across the Eurozone is 11.2%, a historic high since the common currency was introduced more than a decade ago. Spaniards had been hoping for relief from crippling interest rates on their national debt so the government could invest in new jobs, a hope dashed Thursday when the European Central Bank decided against intervening to ease the cost of borrowing.

Nowhere is the pain so acute as in Spain, with one in four workers jobless.

Maroto, Fernandez and their five offspring live next door to her parents in an 800-square-foot apartment, where the children's clothes are folded in neat piles lining the entryway. The grandfather's factory paycheck is the only income for all nine of them.

"Sometimes I feel embarrassed to ask my dad for financial help," Maroto, 35, said one recent afternoon, waiting to pick up her 9-year-old, Maria Carmen, in the yard of the girl's elementary school.

"But we're family," she added with a shrug. "We help one another."

With government benefits on the chopping block despite the continent's highest unemployment, families such as Maroto's rely on support from relatives to survive the crisis.

Spain has the highest rate in Europe of multi-generational families bunking in together. Two-thirds of Spaniards under age 30 still live with their parents. And more than 44% of those younger than 34 required some kind of financial help from their parents last year.

In the Fernandez-Maroto household, three generations prepare breakfast together, and get the kids off to school one by one.

"We coordinate chores at home, with three adults to help — me, my mother and now my husband, for the last year, ever since he lost his job," Maroto said. "First we see our eldest son, Pablo, off to school, and then I take my disabled daughter, Bella, to an institute where she spends half-days. My mom watches the two smallest ones [a 2-year-old and a 5-month-old] while Jose walks Maria Carmen to her school."

Then each afternoon, the whole family goes from school to school, picking up children. Maroto manages to push both a stroller for her 5-month-old and a wheelchair for Bella, who was born with a neurological problem. Fernandez sings a nursery rhyme that Maria Carmen has just learned at school. Walking past a bar, he waves at some old friends. That's where he used to go for a drink with the construction crew, after work.

"Are we angry? Well, what would be the point?" Fernandez said with a laugh. "Sure, life is hard, but at least I have time for my kids. I can spend the whole day having fun with them."

Economists point to such teamwork and close family ties when they examine how Spain can withstand a nearly 25% unemployment rate, and double that for youths.

"The social impact is very different from the U.S. or Northern Europe, because of the family structure in Spain and more generally in southern Europe," said economist Gonzalo Garland of Madrid's IE Business School.

"Either one member of a family supports, or sometimes even grandparents with their pensions are supporting families where none have employment," Garland said. "So there's this family network that tends to alleviate to some extent the impact of very high unemployment."

A year ago, Fernandez, 40, was earning more than $30,000 a year, just above the average total income for a family in Spain. He survived several rounds of layoffs after the construction bubble burst, and then his whole company went out of business.

"If you ask me whether this is what I had in mind for my life, living off benefits, the answer is 'no,'" Fernandez said, mustering a wry smile at his misfortune.

"My kids tell me, 'Papa, I want this!' And I have to say, 'No, we can't buy that,'" he said. "So they're beginning to understand."

A nearly $80-billion package of spending cuts and tax increases, approved by Spain's parliament last month, mandates reductions to long-term jobless benefits. That includes Fernandez's unemployment check, which will shrink early next year.

Government benefits are the hallmark of Europe's postwar welfare state, which many fear is slowly being chipped away. But in Spain, benefits for the elderly or disabled have been mostly untouched.

When Fernandez lost his job, his family members thought they'd have to move into a cheaper apartment because his unemployment check couldn't cover their rent. But because they have a disabled daughter, the couple qualified for a government subsidy to pay the rent and allow the family to stay in the same apartment, where the building has an elevator.

In addition to having its housing paid for, the family receives about $700 a month in other benefits, including Fernandez's unemployment check and a social security payment for Bella's care.

"Those benefits pay at least for our groceries and the utility bills," Maroto said. "Plus we get help from family, and charities once in a while too."

Maroto said she hopes her family's — and Spain's — luck will change.

"There was the boom, and the housing bubble, and then all these troubles. But God willing, things will get better," Maroto said. "I hope we can return to the way things once were. I hope so."

Frayer is a special correspondent.

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