Gómez Serrano, P.J., R. Molero-Simaro and L. Buendía (2016)
‘The Impact Of The 2008/9 Crisis On Inequality And Poverty In Southern
Europe: The Case Of Spain’
Journal of Australian Political Economy
No. 78, pp. 87-114.
THE IMPACT OF THE 2008/9 CRISIS ON
INEQUALITY AND POVERTY IN SOUTHERN
EUROPE: THE CASE OF SPAIN
Pedro José Gómez Serrano, Ricardo Molero-
Simarro and Luis Buendía1
The issue of global economic inequality has increasingly drawn the
attention of scholars (Atkinson 2000; Lapavitsas, 2012; Milanovic 2005;
Piketty 2014; Sala i Martin 2006; Stiglitz 2012), NGOs (FOESSA 2014;
OXFAM 2014, 2015), and international institutions (World Bank 2006;
IMF 2007; UN 2005; OECD 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014b; UNDP
2005; UNICEF 2011). There is little doubt about the phenomenon of
rising inequality, already noticeable from the later 1990s and worsening
with the outbreak of the current financial crisis. Not surprisingly, the new
Sustainable Development Goals, approved by the United Nations in
September 2015, include as a priority the pursuit of equality (Goal 10).
The recession has had serious effects in most countries on inequality,
poverty, and at-risk-of-social-exclusion figures. However, differing
patterns have emerged. Within the EU-15, the Southern countries seem to
have experienced a larger impact. Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain have
suffered severe socio-economic deterioration that may be irreversible,
even if growth-rate recovery consolidates. Indeed, as we show later, a
detailed analysis of the economic conditions in Southern Europe reveals
1Author names are given in random order, as all share equal responsibility for this
88 JOURNAL OF AUSTRALIAN POLITICAL ECONOMY No 78
that no direct correlation exists between the magnitude of the recession
and the social conditions in each country.
The determinants informing social exclusion and the lack of equality
during the crisis in Southern Europe leads us to formulate two questions.
First, to what extent have inequality and poverty patterns followed a
different path in Southern Europe, compared with the core European
countries? Second, what are the particularities of Spain within the
We have chosen to delimit our study to Greece, Italy, Portugal, and
Spain, given both the importance of state redistribution in the final
outcomes for inequality and poverty and the reasons provided hereafter.
Greece, Portugal and Spain have traditionally been in a situation of
economic backwardness compared to other EU members. After entering
the EU, their GDP per capita was still 68 per cent of the EU average
(European Commission 2001: 4). More recently, they have experienced
an asymmetric impact of the crisis: according to the classification of
countries by the impact of recession between 2007 and 2011, made by
the European Commission (2013: 19), Greece and Spain are in the group
of ‘very high’ impact, whereas Portugal and Italy are in the group of
‘high’ impact. Those three countries share also a common history of
Fascist-military political dictatorships which did not end until the 1970s
(although in Greece it was shorter than in the Iberian countries).
Certainly, these historical reasons explain the underdevelopment of their
welfare states (Navarro et al. 2007; Navarro 2011, 2014).
We also include Italy here because the Italian welfare state shares with
these other countries some critical traits (i.e., the role played by families
– especially women – in providing social protection), which is why the
literature included it in a so-called Mediterranean or Southern regime of
welfare (Ferrera 1996; Navarro et al. 2007: 63). Following Del Pino and
Rubio Lara (2015), this is characterised as a regime whose members
experienced a late development of their welfare states and these would
have been influenced by the significant role of families. In these welfare
states, some universal services (such as healthcare or education) coexist
with some contributory and means-tested benefits as well as the
marketisation of other social services (Del Pino and Rubio Lara 2015).
The result is a welfare state with a lower capacity to reduce poverty and
INEQUALITY AND POVERTY IN SOUTHERN EUROPE 89
To make our comparison, we have chosen countries that represent other
welfare regimes (Ferrera 1996; see Arts and Gelissen 2002 for other
classifications) and/or that are key core European countries. Germany
and France, in addition to be paradigmatic core countries, are attributed
to the Continental-corporatist welfare regime, in which work is the base
of social rights, being thereby mainly financed through social security
contributions. To them we have added the Netherlands in order to
increase the quality of the sample with a smaller Euro-area economy with
high per capita income, which clearly is a core country. It is usually
included in the same welfare regime, although with some specific
characteristics. We have included the UK as the paradigm of the Anglo-
Saxon-liberal regime, where less generous social benefits with high
coverage are complemented with a broad system of means-tested and
targeted benefits. Finally, Sweden represents the Nordic-social
democratic regime, with social protection conceived as a social
citizenship right, with universal and generous income benefits and broad
Inequality and poverty critically depend upon both primary (market) and
secondary (state-driven) distribution of income. As shown in Figure 1,
the initial sharing of the fruits of growth, which depend mainly upon
capital-labour dynamics, determines primary distribution; while the
state’s redistributive action, through public incomes and social
expenditure policies, determines secondary distribution. To put it
differently, general economic dynamics generate an initial distribution of
income (also called pre-distribution) that may or may not be altered by
the state through redistributive policies. The result of both processes
leads to a certain distribution of household disposable income.
As illustrated in Figure 1, there are multiple factors affecting both the
primary and secondary distribution of income. Pre-distribution is
influenced by: the functional distribution of income (the evolution of
wage and profit shares of GDP), the labour force participation rate and
unemployment levels, the incidence of temporary and part-time
contracts, and wage dispersion. The state’s redistributive action is the
result of taxation and public expenditure policies. Public expenditures
involve monetary transfers (generic or targeted) and the provision of
public services (whose impact on inequality is unambiguous, but more
difficult to assess; see OECD 2011).
90 JOURNAL OF AUSTRALIAN POLITICAL ECONOMY No 78
Figure 1: Factors Explaining Inequality and Poverty
Source: Authors’ own elaboration.
This paper draws from the literature that examines the effects of
adjustment policies that have been applied in several European
economies since the beginning of the crisis (ILO 2012). We consider that
changes in the labour market account for a major part of the evolution in
the primary distribution of income, while welfare state ‘reforms’
implemented during these same years explain the relatively poor
outcomes in terms of secondary distribution of income.
Two hypotheses guide this work. First, worsening labour conditions are
central to explaining the increasing inequality in Southern Europe. In
particular, a falling labour share of GDP in most of the countries under
study contrasts with the average (rising) trend in the EU-15. Lower
labour incomes can be explained by both increased asymmetries in the
balance of power between workers and employers, and structural
weaknesses in Southern growth models. Second, despite recent increases
INEQUALITY AND POVERTY IN SOUTHERN EUROPE 91
in social expenditures, Mediterranean welfare states have been unable to
avoid the negative consequences of crisis on inequality and poverty.
This paper consists of five sections. In section two, the evolution of
inequality since the start of the current century is briefly described,
stating the main effects of the current financial crisis on selected EU
countries. In section three, we analyse the evolution of the main
determinants of the primary distribution in the countries of Southern
Europe. The fourth section examines the redistributive role of the public
sector during the crisis and the impact of welfare state retrenchment. In
the fifth section, Spain’s particularities are underlined.
Income Inequality at the Beginning of the 21st Century
Even before the crisis began, a moderate increase in inequality was
observed in most national economies. Numerous studies attempt to
account for the reasons behind these trends (OECD 2011, 2012, 2013).
Such explanations have focused on:
• The effects of globalisation on less skilled jobs and on social
benefits for workers from developed countries facing competition
from the global South;
• The effects of capital-intensive technological change, biased in
favour of skilled workers;
• The effects of recent labour policies in OECD countries that have
tended to diminish the rights and safety of workers;
• The effects of financialisation and business mergers that led to an
extraordinary concentration of income at the top of the distribution;
• The effects of tax evasion and neoliberal economic policies on the
redistributive capacity of the state.
As shown in Table 1, inequality increased slightly on average in the EU-
15 during 2000-2013, and the increase was greater in peripheral countries
than in core countries. Since the onset of the crisis, the latter experienced
a minor increase in 2008 and a decline later on, whereas in peripheral
Europe the Gini declined first and then went up.2 The trends since then
2 Eurostat has amended statistics relating to the Gini index in recent years. This has
moderated the increasing trend of the index observed since 2009. For the Spanish case, the
92 JOURNAL OF AUSTRALIAN POLITICAL ECONOMY No 78
have not been uniform, rising in Spain, France and the UK, and
decreasing in Portugal and Netherlands. The averages for each group
have been stable during the crisis, with peripheral countries having
almost a six-point higher Gini index than core countries (by 2000 the
difference was four points).
Table 1: Gini Index of Income Inequality in Selected Countries,
2000 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
France 28 26.6 29.8 29.9 29.8 30.8 30.5 30.1
Germany 25 30.4 30.2 29.1 29.3 29 28.3 29.7
Netherlands 29 27.6 27.6 27.2 25.5 25.8 25.4 25.1
Sweden - 23.4 24 24.8 24.1 24.4 24.8 24.9
UK 32 32.6 33.9 32.4 32.9 33 31.3 30.2
Core-Average 28.5 28.1 29.1 28.7 28.3 28.6 28.1 28.0
Greece 33 34.3 33.4 33.1 32.9 33.5 34.3 34.4
Italy 29 32.2 31 31.5 31.2 31.9 31.9 32.5
Portugal 36 36.8 35.8 35.4 33.7 34.2 34.5 34.2
Spain 32 31.9 31.9 32.9 33.5 34 34.2 33.7
Average 32.5 33.8 33.0 33.2 32.8 33.4 33.7 33.7
EU-15 29 30.3 30.8 30.5 30.5 30.8 30.4 30.4
The 20/20 ratio (the ratio of the share of national income belonging to the
richest 20 per cent of households to the share of the poorest 20 per cent)
shows a similar trend (Table 2): a rise in Southern Europe (headed by
National Institute of Statistics (INE) changed its method of calculating this index in 2013
and has subsequently recalculated the time series, generating a substantial unjustified
decrease in the value of the index.
INEQUALITY AND POVERTY IN SOUTHERN EUROPE 93
Greece and Spain, and moderated by Portugal) and a stabilisation in the
rest (with the exception of the increase in France and Sweden).
Table 2: Income 20/20 Ratio for Selected Countries, 2000-2013
2000 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
France 4.2 3.9 4.4 4.4 4.4 4.6 4.5 4.5
Germany 3.5 4.9 4.8 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.3 4.6
Netherlands 4.1 4 4 4 3.7 3.8 3.6 3.6
Sweden 3.4 3.3 3.5 3.7 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.7
UK 5.2 5.3 5.6 5.3 5.4 5.3 5 4.6
Core-Average 4.1 4.3 4.5 4.4 4.3 4.4 4.2 4.2
Greece 5.8 6 5.9 5.8 5.6 6 6.6 6.6
Italy 4.8 5.5 5.1 5.2 5.2 5.6 5.5 5.7
Portugal 6.4 6.5 6.1 6 5.6 5.7 5.8 6
Spain 5.4 5.5 5.7 5.9 6.2 6.3 6.5 6.3
Periphery-Average 5.6 5.9 5.7 5.7 5.7 5.9 6.1 6.2
EU-15 4.5 4.9 4.9 4.9 4.9 5 4.9 4.9
Contrary to expectations, no clear correlation exists between the
economic downturn and a hypothetical increase in inequality in our two
subsets. The diversity of national patterns suggests the relevance of
particular factors, with Spain exhibiting the worst performance of the
EU-15, and France and Sweden experiencing increasing inequality
(albeit their starting point was much more egalitarian than that of Spain).
Concerning poverty, however, the crisis has had a severe social impact in
the EU. On average, the population at risk of poverty or social exclusion
(AROPE)3 rose by almost 10 per cent in 2013 in the overall EU-15
3 This indicator refers to the situation of people either at risk of poverty (those with an
equivalent income below 60 per cent of the country median; also called monetary poverty),
94 JOURNAL OF AUSTRALIAN POLITICAL ECONOMY No 78
(Table 3), and the percentage of population experiencing monetary
poverty, anchored at the 2008 income level,4 increased by nearly 20 per
cent (Table 4). In these indicators we can better appreciate the
asymmetric shock of the crisis: the AROPE rate was 3.2 points higher in
the European periphery than in the core countries in 2007, with the
difference increasing to 4 points in 2013; the distance in the monetary
poverty rate was 5.7 points in 2008 and 13.7 in 2013.
Table 3. Population at Risk of Poverty or Social Exclusion (AROPE)
in Selected Countries, 2007-2013
2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
France 19 18.5 18.5 19.2 19.3 19.1 18.1
Germany 20.6 20.1 20 19.7 19.9 19.6 20.3
Netherlands 15.7 14.9 15.1 15.1 15.7 15 15.9
Sweden 13.9 14.9 15.9 15 16.1 15.6 16.4
UK 22.6 23.2 22 23.2 22.7 24.1 24.8
Core-Average 18.4 18.3 18.3 18.4 18.7 18.7 19.1
Greece 28.3 28.1 27.6 27.7 31 34.6 35.7
Italy 26 25.3 24.7 24.5 28.2 29.9 28.4
Portugal 25 26 24.9 25.3 24.4 25.3 27.5
Spain 23.3 24.5 24.7 26.1 26.7 27.2 27.3
Periphery-Average 25.7 26.0 25.5 25.9 27.6 29.3 29.7
EU-15 21.6 21.7 21.4 21.8 22.6 23.1 23.1
or severely materially deprived (unable to afford some items considered necessary or
desirable to lead an adequate life) or living in a household with a very low work intensity
(household’s time employed under 20 per cent of available time) (Eurostat's Glossary).
4 This allows one to calculate how many people would be below the poverty threshold if
this was maintained at the value corresponding to a reference year (here 2008, as the start of
the crisis). This avoids that the threshold changes when the mean or median income do.
INEQUALITY AND POVERTY IN SOUTHERN EUROPE 95
Table 4: Population at Risk of Monetary Poverty (anchored at 2008)
in Selected Countries, 2008-2013
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
France 12.5 12.5 12.3 13.7 13.8 13.3
Germany 15.2 16 15.8 15.9 16 16.8
Netherlands 10.5 10.6 10 11 10.7 11.8
Sweden 12.2 11.7 11.2 11.6 10.8 10.8
UK 18.7 20.4 21.4 21.9 20.7* 21.2
Core-Average 13.8 14.2 14.1 14.8 14.4 14.8
Greece 20.1 18.9 18 24.9 35.8 44.3
Italy 18.7 19.9 19.3 21.4 22.7 25
Portugal 18.5 18.1 16.1 17.9 19.4 22.3
Spain 20.8 15.6* 16.4 18.5 20.6 22.2
Periphery-Average 19.5 18.1 17.5 20.7 24.6 28.5
EU-15 16.4 16.3 16.3 17.5 18.2 19.2
*Indicates a break in the time series.
This greater deterioration of Southern countries affects all members of
the group, but the most extreme case is Greece, where 37.5 per cent of
the population was at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 2013, and
monetary poverty more than doubled. Given that the Greek Gini index
has barely increased, these data reflect the sharp declines in total and real
per capita income.
Primary Income Distribution: determinants and effects
Multiple factors explain the increase of inequality and poverty in
Southern European countries. In this section, we analyse the
determinants of the primary distribution of income, i.e. income
96 JOURNAL OF AUSTRALIAN POLITICAL ECONOMY No 78
distribution before social transfers. The so-called ‘market income
distribution’ is determined by several factors. It has been generally
claimed that the most relevant factor here is wage dispersion. However,
this is not true for the countries under study. Contrary to wide belief,
labour earnings dispersion has continuously decreased in Southern
European economies, both in pre- and post-crisis periods. Rather,
unemployment rates and the functional distribution of income have been
the most significant factors in explaining the rising inequality observed
in the distribution of household income before social transfers.
Table 5 presents the Gini coefficient before social transfers (pensions
being included in social transfers). Between 2007 and 2013, inequality
increased in all the countries considered, except the Netherlands. This
increase was extraordinary in Greece, very high in Portugal and Spain,
and lower in Italy. It was also very high in the UK and Sweden. Market
income inequality rose only moderately in Germany and France.
Table 5: Gini Index before Social Transfers in Selected Countries,
2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
France 49.9 48.8 48.7 49.2 49.7 49.8 50.3
Germany 54.4 56 54.4 55.4 55.5 54.4 56.4
Netherlands 45.4 45.5 45.3 44.2 45.8 46.1 44.9
Sweden 44.3 52.2 51.6 52.7 54.8 52.4 53.4
UK 50.4 51.9 53 53.6 53.4 55.3 54.5
Core-Average 48.9 50.9 50.6 51.0 51.8 51.6 51.9
Greece 49.4 49.1 49.4 49.1 51.9 56.9 61.6
Italy 47.8 46.5 46.6 47 48 47.5 48.9
Portugal 51 50.2 50.7 50 50.3 55.9 55.9
Spain 45.4 45.4 44.5 46.8 48.8 48.7 49.3
Periphery-Average 48.4 47.8 47.8 48.2 49.8 52.3 53.9
EU-15 49.5 49.9 49.7 50.4 51.1 51.3 52.1
INEQUALITY AND POVERTY IN SOUTHERN EUROPE 97
Turning now to at-risk-of-poverty rates before social transfers, we
observe several differences (Table 6). Those rates increased substantially
in Greece, Spain, and Portugal, whereas in Italy and the other countries
considered (Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK) changes
were slight. It decreased in France.
Table 6: At-Risk-of-Poverty Rate before Social Transfers in Selected
2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
France 45.8 42.7 43.2 44.5 44.2 43.7 44.7
Germany 43.2 43.5 43.5 43.9 44.6 43.3 43.7
Netherlands 35.4 35.1 35.9 36.9 36.9 36.7 37.2
Sweden 41.5 42.2 40.5 41.6 42.4 41.8 42.3
UK 41.7 40.7 43.2 44.1 43.4 44.5 45.2
Core-Average 41.5 40.8 41.3 42.2 42.3 42.0 42.6
Greece 41.9 41.5 42 42.8 44.9 49.8 53.4
Italy 43.4 42.9 42.7 43.5 44.9 44.5 45.2
Portugal 40 41.5 41.5 43.4 42.5 45.4 46.9
Spain 38.6 39 39.3 42.1 43.8 43.8 45.5
Periphery-Average 41.0 41.2 41.4 43.0 44.0 45.9 47.8
EU-15 45.2 41.6 42.1 43.2 43.8 43.7 44.6
Note: Pensions included in social transfers.
Table 7 shows the trends in the unemployment rate from the beginning of
the crisis until 2014. The economic recession has hit European labour
markets hard and the EU-15 unemployment rate is now 3.0 percentage
points higher than in 2007. The behaviour of Greece and Spain stands out
distinctly from the average. During the period considered, their levels of
98 JOURNAL OF AUSTRALIAN POLITICAL ECONOMY No 78
unemployment tripled. Italy’s rate was doubled, and Portugal had its
unemployment rates increased by ‘only’ 5 percentage points. In the EU-
15, only Ireland suffered an increase similar to that of Mediterranean
Europe (nearly tripling its unemployment, although from a significantly
lower starting point).
Table 7: Unemployment Rates in Selected Countries, 2007-2014
2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
France 8 7.4 9.1 9.3 9.2 9.8 10.3 10.3
Germany 8.5 7.4 7.6 7 5.8 5.4 5.2 5
Netherlands 4.2 3.7 4.4 5 5 5.8 7.3 7.4
Sweden 6.1 6.2 8.3 8.6 7.8 8 8 7.9
UK 5.3 5.6 7.6 7.8 8.1 7.9 7.6 6.1
Core-Average 6.4 6.1 7.4 7.5 7.2 7.4 7.7 7.3
Greece 8.4 7.8 9.6 12.7 17.9 24.5 27.5 26.5
Italy 6.1 6.7 7.7 8.4 8.4 10.7 12.1 12.7
Spain 8.2 11.3 17.9 19.9 21.4 24.8 26.1 24.5
Portugal 9.1 8.8 10.7 12 12.9 15.8 16.4 14.1
Average 8.0 8.7 11.5 13.3 15.2 19.0 20.5 19.5
EU-15 7.1 7.2 9.1 9.6 9.6 10.6 11 10.7
Two additional factors may have had a significant impact on the primary
distribution of income: the share of part-time jobs, and the evolution of
average wages. Between 2007 and 2014, the incidence of part-time jobs
increased in the EU-15 from 20.3 per cent of total to 22.9 per cent
(Eurostat). For Southern European countries, part-time recruitment has
experienced a much steeper rise than average. In Greece part-time
employment has risen from 5.5 per cent to 9.3 per cent, in Spain from
11.4 per cent to 15.8 per cent, and in Italy from 13.4 per cent to 18.1 per
INEQUALITY AND POVERTY IN SOUTHERN EUROPE 99
cent. By contrast, Portugal has experienced a pace of growth in this area
much more in line with the rest of the European Community (from 8.2
per cent to 10.1 per cent).
The increasing prevalence of part-time jobs is mainly due to the inability
of workers to find full-time jobs. The percentage of part-time workers
who would like to have a full-time job increased significantly in all cases
between 2007 and 2014: from 33.3 per cent to 64 per cent in Spain, from
45.1 per cent to 71.2 per cent in Greece, from 39.3 per cent to 65.4 per
cent in Italy, and from 38.6 per cent to 49.3 per cent in Portugal. In a
context of increasing unemployment, workers have accepted fewer
working hours than desired.
Regarding the evolution of wages, these have experienced a marked
downward trend in Southern Europe as a consequence of both higher
unemployment rates and tough labour ‘reforms’. Comparing average real
wages in Southern Europe between 2007 and 2013, an evident fall can be
observed in Greece (75.8 per cent of the 2007 level), and a smaller but
significant decline occurred in Italy (94.3 per cent) and Spain (96.8 per
cent). Only Portugal was able to avoid such deterioration, as the average
real wage in 2012 (latest available data) was at 103.4 per cent of its 2007
level (ILO 2015: 7).
In short, the expansion of unemployment and part-time employment, and
the drop in the average real wage, led to a sharp deterioration in the
living conditions of a significant fraction of the working population in
Europe. The impact was harsher in Greece and Spain, but also relevant in
Portugal and Italy.
However, in most Southern European countries, wage dispersion did not
increase during the first five years of the current crisis (Table 8). There
can be several explanations for this phenomenon. First, it may be a
consequence of the massive destruction of lower-paid jobs. This
reduction of low-wage occupations provokes the statistical impression
that the payment range has been shortened. This has been the case in
Spain, where unemployment is concentrated in the building sector
(where low-qualification jobs dominate), as well as in the hotel sector, in
restaurants and tourism, and in domestic services and personal care.
100 JOURNAL OF AUSTRALIAN POLITICAL ECONOMY No 78
Table 8: Wage Dispersion Ratios, 2000-2012
Ratio 5/1 Ratio 9/1 Ratio 9/5
France 1.59 1.47 1.5 3.1 2.91 2.97 1.95 1.98 1.99
Germany 1.71 1.83 1.77 3.04 3.26 3.26 1.77 1.78 1.84
Netherlands 1.59 1.61 1.62 2.79 2.95 2.89 1.75 1.83 1.78
Sweden 1.39 1.4 1.38 2.35 2.34 2.27 1.7 1.67 1.65
UK 1.82 1.81 1.79 3.46 3.59 3.55 1.9 1.98 1.98
Core-Average 1.6 1.6 1.6 2.9 3.0 3.0 1.8 1.8 1.8
Greece 1.72 1.72 1.55 3.44 3.43 2.71 2 1.99 1.75
Italy 1.44 1.45 1.52 2.22 2.27 2.32 1.54 1.56 1.53
Portugal - 1.65 1.49 - 4.31 3.81 - 2.61 2.57
Spain 1.69 1.68 1.64 3.55 3.47 3.07 2.1 2.06 1.88
Periphery-Average 1.6 1.6 1.6 3.1 3.4 3.0 1.9 2.1 1.9
Note: For Spain and Greece, the first year of the period for which data are
available is 2004; for the Netherlands is 2002; also, in the absence of data for
Italy and the Netherlands for the year 2007, we have taken the 2008 and 2006
Second, the data provided by the OECD are available only for 2012, and
it was not until 2014 that a slight recovery of productive activity and job
creation was registered in Southern Europe. The evidence suggests that,
since 2012, the employment created has been of very poor quality, and
newly created occupations have provided lower wages than those jobs
that were previously destroyed. According to the European Commission,
one out of three new jobs created in 2013 did not allow the worker to
escape poverty. For the case of Spain, the figure was two-thirds of new
A common pattern emerges when the evolution of the wage share of
GDP is considered. Figure 2 shows the pattern followed by the wage
INEQUALITY AND POVERTY IN SOUTHERN EUROPE 101
share of our two sub-samples and two representative cases of each of
Figure 2: Wage Share in the EU-15, 2007-2013
Source: Authors’ own elaboration with data from AMECO.
Note: See Annex 1 for each country’s data.
On average, the labour share increased in core countries (save for the
UK, whose share remained steady at 67.5 per cent) whereas peripheral
countries followed the opposite trend. Southern European countries
experienced a significant fall in labour share from 2010: five percentage
points in Greece, three points in Spain, and two and a half in Portugal. In
Italy, the wage share was maintained during these years.
The main causes of this declining trend of the labour share of GDP in
peripheral countries can be thus found in the hike of unemployment, the
spread of (involuntary) part-time jobs and the decrease of average wages.
Labour market ‘reforms’ approved in these countries as part of
adjustment policies meant to address the crisis, reinforced those trends.
In effect, the European Commission (joined in some cases by the IMF
and the ECB, the so-called ‘Troika’), recommended labour reforms in
half the EU countries, those in the peripheral countries being the most
intense (Álvarez et al., 2013: 227 ff.). They have included the extension
of opting-out clauses for employers (by-passing sectoral collective
102 JOURNAL OF AUSTRALIAN POLITICAL ECONOMY No 78
agreements), the pre-eminence of company-level agreements over the
rest, the decrease of firing costs or the freezing (or reduction) of public
employees’ wages. The result has been the decentralization of collective
bargaining and the deregulation of labour markets, which along with the
increase of unemployment, have damaged labour’s power.
In sum, we observe the emergence of several patterns. In Southern
European countries, substantially higher unemployment rates and a
falling labour share, due to decreasing real wages, have caused both
market inequality and poverty before transfers.5 Meanwhile, labour
earnings dispersion improved. In the other countries considered, primary
distribution worsened as a consequence of rising wage dispersion,
although it did so smoothly. Indeed, average EU-15 poverty rates
decreased. Finally, the recession has had a different impact on so-called
‘pre-distribution’; weaker productive structures and deteriorated labour
markets have left Southern European countries behind.
Economic and Welfare State Crisis in Southern Europe
Having examined how the market distribution of income has evolved, we
now turn to the question of state influence. The redistributive action of
the state has historically been the most powerful in Western Europe, but
the systems of social protection are not evenly configured throughout the
continent. In this section, we examine how Southern-European states
have reacted to the recession, also considering their different starting
points in terms of redistributive capacity.
The ability of the state to reduce inequalities is known as its
redistributive capacity. Comparing the data available in Tables 1 and 5,
we can calculate the reduction in inequality caused by state amelioration.
For the EU-15 in 2013, the states reduced inequality by 42 per cent
(reducing the Gini index from 52.1 to 30.4). This reduction was, on
average, 37 per cent for peripheral countries and 46 per cent for core
countries. Greece, with a 44.2 per cent reduction, even exceeded the
5 Note that for several years, the GDP itself also shrank twice (2008-2010, 2011-2013), so
that the effective decline in the working population income became pronounced, especially
in countries where both recessions were felt more strongly: Italy, Spain, Portugal, and
above all Greece experienced very strong negative growth rates, almost steadily, between
2008 and 2013 (as sharp as -7 per cent in some cases).
INEQUALITY AND POVERTY IN SOUTHERN EUROPE 103
redistribution level of two core countries (France, 40.2 per cent
reduction, and the Netherlands, 43.8 per cent). However, both France and
the Netherlands had lower starting points (11.3 and 16.7 points lower,
respectively). Given the social costs of the crisis have been very high in
Southern Europe, they would have been catastrophic without the action
of the state.
Other welfare regimes had a substantially greater redistributive capacity
than those of the Southern European countries. Of course, this holds true
for Sweden, the paradigm of the social-democratic regime. Despite being
more unequal in 2013 than Italy or Spain in terms of market incomes,
Sweden managed to reduce this imbalance by 53.4 per cent. The same
applies to France, Germany and the Netherlands, members of the
Continental regime, whose Gini indexes dropped by 40.2 per cent, 47.4
per cent and 43.8, respectively. Even the UK, which is attributed to the
liberal regime, was able to reduce inequality by 44.6 per cent in that
same year, 2013.
An additional aspect of the influence of welfare states on inequality
deserves further consideration: public services. Some research suggests
that, in developed countries, public services (such as education, health,
transport, and housing) account for an additional 20 per cent in the
reduction of inequality, on average (OECD 2011). The crisis has
significantly adversely affected public services, particularly in those
countries where the economic collapse has been more severe. Further,
welfare state reforms already implemented before the crisis -- in some
cases to ensure their long-term financial sustainability; in others, to
expand the private sector’s involvement -- might have encouraged this
trend (Buendía and Gómez 2014). In general, welfare state reforms since
the 1990s have not eliminated the systems of social protection, but they
have tended to limit and distort some of its distinct features (i.e., workers'
protection) across the four welfare regimes (Del Pino and Rubio Lara
2015; Moreno 2013).
An alternative approach to the effects of welfare states on income
distribution is the analysis of social spending and its main components.
To obtain a more precise idea of its evolution, we will consider its weight
in the GDP, its absolute amount, the paths followed by its various
components, and real spending per capita.
Table 9 shows the weight of social protection expenditure in GDP before
and during the crisis (until 2012). Focusing first on the EU-15 average, a
104 JOURNAL OF AUSTRALIAN POLITICAL ECONOMY No 78
significant increase was evident during the crisis, while this variable had
remained stagnant between 2000 and 2007. As regards particular
countries, hardly any relevant change was registered before 2007, except
for a notable increase in Portugal and a decline in Germany and the UK.
However, between 2007 and 2009, the average increase in spending
amounted to four percentage points; this figure was even greater for
Southern Europe (especially Spain and Greece). After 2009, expenditures
were stabilised at the new level.
Table 9: Social Protection Expenditure as a Percentage of GDP,
2000 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
France 27.7 29.3 29.7 31.5 31.7 31.6 31.2
Germany 28.7 26.6 26.9 30.2 29.4 28.3 28.3
Netherlands 24.7 26.7 26.9 29.7 30.3 30.5 31.4
Sweden 29.3 28.6 28.9 31.4 29.8 29.1 29.9
UK 25.2 23.8 24.6 27.5 27.1 27.6 28.4
Core-Average 27.7 27.1 27.5 30.2 29.5 29.2 29.5
Greece 22.7 24.1 25.4 27.4 28.2 28.9 30.0
Italy 23.7 25.4 26.4 28.5 28.6 28.4 29.0
Portugal 18.6 22.6 23.2 25.5 25.4 25.0 25.4
Spain 19.5 20.3 21.5 24.7 25.0 25.5 25.4
Periphery-Average 21.1 23.1 24.1 26.5 26.8 27.0 27.5
EU-15 25.7 25.6 26.3 29.0 28.9 28.7 29.2
Source: ESSPROS (European System of Integrated Social Protection Statistics);
We should be cautious, however, in the interpretation of these data, given
that several factors were instrumental in the final outcome. There is the
decline in GDP, which occurred during two sub-periods and which was
more intense in Southern countries, particularly Greece. Automatic
INEQUALITY AND POVERTY IN SOUTHERN EUROPE 105
stabilisers, namely expenditures on unemployment benefits, rocketed as a
consequence of employment destruction in these countries. Finally, the
inertial effect due to trends such as the ageing of the population (putting
pressure on public pension and healthcare expenditures) has to be also
considered. The relative increase in spending on social protection in
Greece and Spain was thus not the result of a political choice in favour of
pursuing greater equality, but the result of a combination of these three
If we consider the volume of resources devoted to social protection in the
EU-15, they began to decline, even in nominal terms, after 2009 in
Greece, from 2010 in Portugal, and after 2011 in Spain. This did not
occur in the other 12 countries that form the EU-15 (Eurostat). This
phenomenon resulted in a significant decline in real social spending per
capita between 2009 and 2012 in Greece (14.9 per cent), Portugal (7.3
per cent), and Spain (6.5 per cent), and even in Italy (3.5 per cent).6 In
the rest of the EU-15, where social conditions had worsened to a lesser
extent, real social spending per capita remained stable, or even increased.
The analysis of the different areas of social expenditures as a percentage
of GDP (detailed figures in Annex II) is better understood if it includes
the influence of reforms introduced during the period of study. Although
fiscal consolidation programmes have been applied in both core and
peripheral countries, it is relevant that Southern European countries are
the only ones that adopted all the measures considered by Álvarez et al.
(2013). These measures include: freeze or reduction of public employees’
wages, firing of public employees, old-age pension reforms, healthcare
reforms, decrease of expenditures in social benefits and transfers, public
investment cutbacks and increase in consumption taxes. This is in line
with Beetsma et al. (2015), who observe that the most sizeable fiscal
consolidation effort in the euro area has been made by Greece, Spain and
Portugal (it was not so sizeable in Italy, but still over the euro area
average). It was in these countries where the adjustment has been mostly
expenditure-based. This is relevant inasmuch as the literature shows that
‘spending-driven fiscal consolidation programmes are detrimental for the
distribution of income’ (Agnello et al. 2016: 5).
6 Everything suggests that this reduction continued in Southern countries in 2013 and quite
possibly in 2014, but data are not yet available.
106 JOURNAL OF AUSTRALIAN POLITICAL ECONOMY No 78
Starting with spending on unemployment, it has increased sharply in
Spain (as expected). By contrast, although expenditures on
unemployment doubled as a percentage of GDP in both Greece and Italy,
those percentages remained low (surprising in the case of Greece, where
unemployment had quadrupled). Since 2011, spending on unemployment
tended to decrease in Spain and Greece due to the depletion of assurance
for many insured, and for the long-term unemployed in particular
(Eurostat). Thus, in Spain, as of January 2015, the coverage of
unemployment benefits reached only 56.5 per cent of the unemployed,
compared with 61.4 per cent a year earlier, while average spending per
unemployed person had fallen by 4.1 per cent (INE).
Turning to social expenditures per capita, from 2010 onward, fiscal
consolidation programmes led to a decline in spending on healthcare and
education in Southern Europe, which subsequently intensified over time.
In Spain, between 2009 and 2013, per capita spending on social policies
decreased by 10.1 per cent (from 6,933 to 6,230 constant 2013 euros),
the cutbacks in healthcare and education amounting to 20 per cent. These
cutbacks were uneven in geographical terms, so that the poorest and
neediest areas suffered greater losses (Pérez García et al. 2015).7
Furthermore, the Stability Programme 2014-2017 sets as a target a
further reduction of the weight of these spending items vis-a-vis the
In the other Southern European countries, the evolution was similar:
between 2011 and 2013, per capita spending on healthcare was reduced
by 15.9 per cent in Greece, by 13.4 per cent in Portugal, and by 7.8 per
cent in Italy (data from World DataBank). Similar reductions occurred in
education (OECD 2014a); though available data do not go beyond 2011,
the decline is undeniable. According to Eurostat (which does not provide
7 The crisis has had asymmetric consequences also inside countries. The less developed
regions in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal have had worse economic results since the
beginning of the crisis, which has led the European Commission to treat them apart in its
current analysis of lagging regions (Cuadrado-Roura et al. 2016). Likewise, the social
impact of the crisis has not been equal in urban and rural areas: at-risk-of-poverty rates
increased more in cities than in other areas, yet the starting point was different as well:
poverty is higher in rural areas than in cities in Spain, Portugal, Greece and, to a lesser
extent, in Italy, being the opposite in France, Germany, the Netherlands or the UK, among
others (European Commission 2014: 74). These trends form a complex and rich picture
whose analysis is beyond the scope of this paper due to space limits.
INEQUALITY AND POVERTY IN SOUTHERN EUROPE 107
data for Greece), spending per student in Spain and Italy dropped in
2008-2011 by 4.2 per cent and 9.2 per cent, respectively.
Finally, regarding the evolution of old-age pensions during this period,
statutory retirement ages have been increased and longer contribution
periods are being required. However, owing to their high degree of
institutionalisation and the growing political influence of retirees in the
EU-15, pensions have remained in general stagnant or experienced a
slight reduction in purchasing power. This has led to the paradoxical
result of a sharp decline in old-age poverty in those countries most
affected by the crisis -- a phenomenon due not to a rise in their income,
but to a reduction in the average national income and a decline in income
among the poorest and/or the unemployed.
The Particular Case of Spain
In terms of inequality and poverty, Spain has experienced an overall
worsening greater not merely than that of the EU-15 average, but, in
aspects like inequality, also than the rest of Southern Europe. The
cumulative decline of GDP between 2009 and 2013 was 7.5 per cent in
Portugal, 8.5 per cent in Italy and 19 per cent in Greece, and 6.4 per cent
in Spain. In aggregate terms, the recession in Spain was not as deep as in
the rest of the periphery.
However, even taking into account the methodological change introduced
by Spanish statistical authorities in 2013 to estimate the Gini index,
which halved its perceived growth and prevented its absolute value from
becoming the highest in the EU-15, the expansion of inequality in Spain
compared to the other Southern economies is surprising. Between 2007
and 2013, whereas the Gini index increased by two points in Spain, it
rose by just three decimals in Italy; meanwhile it remained stable in
Greece, and in Portugal it was reduced by one and a half points.
According to the 20/20 ratio, an increase in polarisation occurred in
Spain, while Greece experienced a modest decline. The key to these
phenomena lies in the fact that the crisis has hit Spain very unevenly
across different sectors of the population (FOESSA 2014). Specifically,
the 10 per cent of poorest households lost 13 per cent of their real annual
revenue between 2007 and 2011, while the top 10 per cent experienced
an annual loss of only 1.5 per cent of their earnings (OECD 2015). That
trend continued through at least 2013.
108 JOURNAL OF AUSTRALIAN POLITICAL ECONOMY No 78
When comparing AROPE and monetary poverty rates (Tables 3 and 4),
the behaviour of the Spanish economy appears similar to that of the other
Southern countries (although the recession had not been as deep). Greece
suffered the greatest degradation in living conditions, in line with the
magnitude of the recession. Population living below the poverty line
(anchored at 2008) increased from 20.1 per cent to 44.3 per cent, as a
result of the collapse of per capita income, which declined by 24.6 per
cent between 2007 and 2014. In Spain, the number of people affected by
monetary poverty increased by seven points, while the AROPE rate rose
by four points, in line with what occurred in Italy. Nevertheless, Portugal
was able to contain the social collapse to some extent – monetary poverty
increased by less than four points, and the AROPE rate rose by just two
and a half points.
What are the factors that explain the behaviour of the Spanish economy?
Undoubtedly, the most remarkable factor resides in the labour market.
Since 2000, many low-quality jobs (in terms of earnings, stability,
training, and productivity) were created in Spain, highly concentrated
into a few sectors linked at least in part to the housing bubble
(construction, tourism, hotels, financial services, domestic services, and
personal care). The crisis quickly destroyed many of these jobs. Thus the
labour reforms of 2010 and 2012 were formally designed to ‘facilitate
recruitment’ in a strongly recessive context. However, by lowering
dismissal costs, cutting labour rights, and reducing real wages, they
instead caused temporary and part-time jobs to increase and real wages to
deteriorate, thus consolidating the status of the working poor. Spain’s
unemployment rate remains thus similar to that of Greece, despite the
decline in Greek GDP has been more than double that of the Spanish
economy. Although Italy and Portugal experienced a crash similar to that
of Spain, their unemployment rates are half that of Spain.
Moreover, Spain is distinguished as the one country in the EU least able
to reduce inequality through state amelioration. The difference in the
Gini index in 2013 before and after transfers was 15.6 points in Spain,
compared to 16.4 in Italy, 21.7 in Portugal, and 27.4 in Greece (not to
mention the 28.5-point difference in Sweden). This is not merely due to
Spain’s lower share of social protection expenditures in terms of GDP
(the lowest in the EU-15, excluding Luxembourg), or to its weaker
political commitment to the goal of inclusion, but also to the effect of
recent tax reforms (OECD 2015). Spanish governments have raised tax
rates on consumption and fees for certain public services, while reducing
INEQUALITY AND POVERTY IN SOUTHERN EUROPE 109
income taxes for individuals and companies, and on property and
inheritance. Moreover, the cutback policies mentioned in the previous
section have further reduced the redistributive and protective capacity of
the public sector. The welfare state in Spain has become even more
financially vulnerable, due to the collapse of public revenue (from 40.9
per cent of GDP in 2007 to 34.8 per cent in 2009).
In sum, the development pattern of the Spanish economy tends to
consolidate inequality along with monetary poverty. The state has not
been able to ensure social cohesion and there is a risk that this situation
will continue to consolidate if current policies are not reversed.
Analysis of available data implies that, overall, inequality and poverty
have more dramatically affected Southern Europe than the rest of the
EU-15. Undoubtedly, the severity of the contraction in productive
activity was much higher in the four Southern countries here considered.
However, inequality in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy has followed
markedly different paths in recent years, in comparison with other
European countries. Although the Southern countries have a varied
experience, there do exist common factors explaining those general
The collapse of Greece surpassed that of the other three economies, but
inequality has remained remarkably stable throughout the period. This
notwithstanding, the population at risk of poverty or exclusion has
increased further. Meanwhile, Portugal has experienced the smallest
increase in overall poverty, and the country has been able to reduce
inequality despite a very difficult economic context (including an
intervention from Brussels demanding a programme of profound public
spending cuts). Italy maintained its average levels of inequality seen
before the crisis and, despite an increase in absolute poverty, it has not
suffered a similar increase in its AROPE rate (perhaps because Italy’s
unemployment levels have not grown so much). Finally, Spain is the
country that has experienced the greatest increase in inequality and
poverty in comparison to the size of its recession. This experience
reflects a model of development characterised by its instability.
Contemplating separately the impact of the factors that generate
inequality, Southern Europe’s distinct behaviour in terms of
110 JOURNAL OF AUSTRALIAN POLITICAL ECONOMY No 78
unemployment, part-time work, and average wages has exerted
significant influence on overall inequality. In particular, unemployment
and labour reforms are the key explanatory elements of this evolution.
Until 2011, no increase in wage dispersion was observed in these
countries. Moreover, Southern European economies have suffered a
drastic reduction in the wage share of GDP. This appears to be a relevant
factor in explaining the substantially worse indicators on inequality and
poverty prior to social transfers in Greece, Portugal, and Spain.
Regarding the redistributive role of the state, it has played a crucial role
in cushioning the worst effects of the crisis (even in Southern Europe),
although its influence has not been sufficient to avoid a worsening of
living conditions for broad layers of the population. However, the
redistributive capacity of Southern welfare states is substantially lower
than in other parts of Europe. Indeed, many core European countries are
more unequal before transfers, but their redistributive instruments led
them to greater ultimate equality in household disposable income.
Moreover, it is likely that differences in inequality between the Southern
region and the rest of Europe are being undervalued. Cuts in public
spending aimed at reducing budget deficits are affecting many public
services, but their effects on household’s welfare will persist over time
(for example, in the case of the reduction in funding for public education
or health). Regarding the debate around the sustainability of welfare
states, it is significant that, measured as a share in GDP, they have
expanded across the EU-15 during the crisis. Nevertheless, real spending
per capita, or per beneficiary, has tended to fall in Southern Europe,
except in terms of old-age pensions which have remained fairly stable to
The recovery in economic activity since 2014 raises further questions.
We still lack the data that would allow us to assess whether this implies
also a new trend in social issues, but two facts pose a threat to any
optimistic expectation: the fact that this recovery is far from guaranteed
(with growth data still ‘provisional’ for the countries under study) and the
fact that during the expansive phase, peripheral countries were unable to
catch up with core countries, which points to the influence of historical
political economic considerations.
INEQUALITY AND POVERTY IN SOUTHERN EUROPE 111
Pedro José Gómez Serrano is Professor of International Economics and
Development at the Complutense University of Madrid
Ricardo Molero-Simarro is Assistant Professor at the Department of
Economics of the Universidad Loyola Andalucía
Luis Buendía is Assistant Professor of Public Economics and Political
Economy at the University of León
The authors would like to thank the useful comments made by three
anonymous referees, the issue editor and Matt Withers.
Annex I: Labour Share of GDP in selected countries,
Annex II: Social Expenditures by Function as a % of GDP in the EU-15, 2007-2012
Old age Healthcare Unemployment Family and
childhood Tot al
SEEPROS Education* Total with
France 11.2 12.9 8.6 9.2 1.9 1.9 2.6 2.5 29.3 31.2 5.6 6.1 34.9 37.3
Sweden 11.1 12.4 7.5 7.6 1.1 1.2 2.9 3.2 28.6 29.9 6.7 6.8 35.3 36.7
UK 10.5 12.7 7.7 9.3 0.5 0.7 1.7 1.9 23.8 28.4 6.1 6.4 29.9 34.8
Core-Av. 10.5 11.9 8.0 8.9 1.3 1.3 2.5 2.7 27.1 29.5 5.6 5.9 32.7 35.4
Spain 6.7 9.2 6.4 6.7 2.1 3.6 1.3 1.4 20.3 25.4 4.4 4.8 24.7 30.2
10.0 13.0 6.6 6.8 1.2 2.0 1.3 1.4 23.1 27.5 4.8 4.9 27.9 32.4
Note: Expenditure on education is usually left aside from such analyses. However, because education serves as an opportunity
equaliser, facilitates participation in social life, and allows individuals to better defend their own rights, it seems reasonable to
include education spending in assessing the effort made by society toward reducing inequalities.
Source: ESSPROS; Eurostat 2015. * OECD for education figures.
INEQUALITY AND POVERTY IN SOUTHERN EUROPE 113
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