The grinding crisis that has been battering Spain's economy since 2008 is starting to rock the very foundations of society with increasing numbers of people resorting to scavenging for food and whole households subsisting on zero disposable income. Throughout the early 2000s, Spain had seen an unsustainable construction boom and rising household debt coupled with high inflation and a massive trade deficit. By early 2009, Spain went into a deep recession and, despite an upturn in 2011, remained in the economic doldrums until the European Central Bank vowed to do 'everything it takes' to keep the Euro from crumbling and granted Spain a 100 billion euro rescue loan to deal with its failing banks. The most severe aspect of the crisis on a personal level, however, have been the unprecedented and still stubbornly high rates of unemployment. By October 2013, Spain's unemployment rate had reached a staggering 26.7% which rose to somewhere in the region of 50% amongst those under the age of 25. Fully two thirds of young Spaniards are prepared to leave their country in search of work, exasperated with the lack of opportunity and the two tier labour market which keeps a privileged few in their jobs on permanent contracts and makes employers loath to take on new staff at a time of economic downturn. From having been an immigrant country, welcoming a constant stream of new arrivals from Latin America and other parts of Europe, Spain has become an emigrant country, and this despite the fact that the current generation of graduates is said to be the best educated in Spain's history.
The cuts which the Spanish government has had to implement in order to remain in the Euro and to continue enjoying the guarantees extended by the European Central Bank have affected some of the country's poorest the most. A hike in value added tax on food items and cuts in social entitlements such as school lunches for low-income families are driving many families to the verge of destitution. The catholic charity Caritas estimates that almost a quarter of Spanish households are now living in poverty with many dependent on food handouts at public pantries. A group of radical unionists and mayors in a deprived southern region recently raided two supermarkets, taking basic food items and distributing them to the needy. Over a dozen people face prosecution but public opinion is solidly behind them and others who are resisting the drastic economic retrenchment.
For many who used to have decent jobs in the years before 2008 there is a huge amount of shame associated with having to accept food aid from charities. In the city of Girona, near Barcelona, the number of people furtively picking over rubbish bins and rummaging through waste was deemed to be such a problem that the mayor decided to have locks put on public bins. According to the mayor's office this was to protect public health. Others, including some of the city's councillors, reckon it was done to protect the city's tourist industry and to avoid the ungainly sight of locals scavenging through municipal waste.
Samuel Aranda met some of the people who came to charities like Caritas to collect their food and travelled across a country still very much in the grip of an economic crisis that is unlikely to release its hostages for a while yet.