How it feels like

Local mayors are masters of life and death thanks to Orbán’s workfare program

A man submitted an official complaint because the local mayor didn’t give him a place in the local workfare (or public work) program and thus rendered his life in the village economically impossible. His case illustrates what it came to be living in a village today, and how centralization and dependence looks like in action.

There have been reports on residents of the poorest villages being completely dependent on politics for their livelihood – but this is the first time someone went on record. A man submitted an official complaint to the local council because the local mayor repeatedly failed to give him a spot in the local state-funded public work program.

The so-called “workfare” program was Orbán’s gloating idea to replace welfare dependence with work – no matter how pointless that work might be. Conservatives and other right-wing hypocrites are loving it because it makes them look like they have worked for their quality of life – they weren’t just born into a luckier segment of the country and society.

The official excuse for the program is that is helps people get into work – as if there were any jobs in these villages to be done. It was invented in 2011, and accounted for 250000 people’s livelihoods by 2016.

The reality of the workfare program is that many public servants have been fired and rehired in their original jobs (teachers, public servants, librarians, etc.) on the lower wage, because the program allows to pay less than the minimal wage for the same job. The state gave itself such privileges.

The other victims of the program are the bona fide unemployed – and the unemployable.

The unemployment benefit is around 70 euros per month – the only income for many in these pointless, dead-end villages (that are nonetheless kept alive undead by costly measures.) For unemployed people, participation in the workfare program for at least a month per year is precondition to getting the unemployment benefit for the rest of the year.

The work is not beneficial for gaining skills either. They are raking leaves, painting the mayor’s new house, or digging ditches with spoons. And the mayor decides who is allowed to participate. And the funding for the whole program comes from Budapest – i.e. from Fidesz. In many places, this is the extent of the local “economy”.

According to a 2014 study by the Academy of Science (pdf), however, the workfare program is far from delivering on its promises. Contrary to the myth and unfunded presumptions, it doesn’t even cover mostly villages, the majority of participants are not from there. (But when it does, it is devastatingly useful for political purposes.) It doesn’t decrease Hungary’s exorbitant level of redistribution – it just reshuffled it in a way that the to 2/3 of the income brackets benefit from it. It didn’t reduce unemployment – except statistically. Anyone who spends some time in the state-funded program doesn’t count in the official statistics.

The emigration of up to a million working age people has also helped to create an acute labor shortage in the country. And yet, these people remain in the arms of the workfare program. Partly because they are kept in their villages with no actual economy – and far from real jobs. And also because the program doesn’t equip them with any skills.

The program also doesn’t really target the unemployable – the participants are often hard-working people who only ever find meaningful salaries in the black economy, often for 12-hour workdays, but their salaries would be halved if it went through personal income taxation that many can’t afford.

The program didn’t bring anyone closer to get a job either (quite literally, people don’t move to where there are jobs, they remain petrified in an unsustainable economic situation) and it didn’t bring a single skill to those it was meant to help: the least educated and the notoriously unemployed and unemployable. (Unless we count begging to political higher-ups as a skill, which in Hungary we do.)

Instead, the workfare program brought back state feudalism in the shape of top down economic dependence and political micromanagement of a mock-economy in the poorest settlements and regions. It didn’t retire a single means-testing bureaucrat, it had merely given unprecedented political power in the hands of local mayors and through them the government. Social and geographical immobility has increased in the targeted populations, and it lends massive political clout to the ruling party.

The workfare program has actually written off the 1-2 million people on the edge of the workforce as hopeless cases and merely aspires to inflict some pain on them in exchange for a lifeline – a very popular political idea. Even though human beings are generally quite eager to find out how to do something when they are presented with a meaningful task, this program treats them as lost cases and thus reinforces the defeatist mentality. Not to mention the feudalistic reflexes of looking at the rulers for help.

The previous welfare dependence was also bad. But the workfare program isn’t any better, it just serves political interests more powerfully. From this perspective, the fact that Orbán steamrolled the poorest villages in the elections is not a surprise.

When asked about the reduction of their earlier, automatic benefits, the locals are aware of it. Many have completely lost every benefits under Fidesz, and some of them couldn’t even make it into the workfare program. Those, who made it may be a bit better off – those who have lost have no voice to do against it.

This should be a lesson how the welfare state is just concealed economic helplessness. It has been give credit for taming those who had nothing to lose – but what happens when there is no more money to tame them? The welfare state might give the feeling of security for a while, but only as long as it keeps giving. When it pulls back, people realize just how little control they had over it, and thus how little control they have over their own income. But by the time they realize it, it is usually too late. Those who lost out have no recourse, they can’t even vote it back.

Or can they?

People are also aware that even this little money is conditional of their vote for Fidesz. It also helps that many can’t even name another party – or a politician other than Orbán – thanks to the media centralization. There are cringeworthy videos of villagers thinking that George Soros must have a party and must be plotting to form a government. And why would they not think so when Orbán used those exact words? There was a guy who honestly believed that Brussels wants to overthrow Orbán and that the EU wanted to nuke Hungary – back when we were at war with Brussels and the billboards were warning against the EU.

You can make people’s lives worse and still get their hysterical support – as long long as you also render them helpless.

The man who challenged the mayor’s refusal to give him a workfare job argued that he had three children so he needed the work. The option of moving elsewhere for a job hasn’t even occurred to him – and don’t just blame him. The government is sounding the alarm on small villages and how they will soon be empty as people with the slightest wit are moving to cities (and increasingly abroad) to make a living. Public money is poured into the maintenance of these places – in the shape of the workfare program as well as making living in these places a precondition to getting the baby-loans. With the three children that couples have to promise in exchange of the loans, it is five lives per house permanently crippled. Two adults and their three helpless kids made dependent on the state for help to make a living where there is no economy left.

Dependence reproduces itself with massive government help – and dependence creates more captive voters. Among other tragic consequences.

The man complaining for state-funded livelihood in the village he is living in is a symptom of a sick system, where taxpayers’ hard-earned money is poured into maintaining economically dead settlements, where life is more expensive, choices are more limited, there aren’t even schools, let alone teachers who haven’t left long ago. There hasn’t been enough doctors to cover these places 30 years ago – the situation has only got worse since. State subsidies and EU money is needed to get the internet, utilities or even a post office in these villages, and the owner of a grocery store chain has just applied for taxpayer money to keep operating in every last village, because it is simply not profitable.

It is good for no one in particular to forcibly maintain a human settlement just because there used to be one there – but the language even the media is using to describe the situation suggests that the end of these villages is somehow bad for someone. These villages “die out” according to the unthinking media, and they use the words “village destruction” – referring to the Romanian tragedy of centrally coordinated brutality under communism. But why should we leave people behind in the economic past and force them to stay put in a place that does not serve them well anymore is a mystery. Of course it helps that most people can’t tell their own viewpoint from that of a politician. (They call it the “interest of the country”.)

But people moving out of unlivable villages is a happy development. It means that people are moving to places where they can make a life for themselves. It means that they don’t wait for the state and the command economy to give them a life and a purpose. It means that they are taking their lives in their own hands and learn that they, too, have a role to play in their own lives.

But that kind of mentality is not the norm in villages. The guy who publicly demanded some mock-employment from the state because … what else is he supposed to do? is the norm. The only unusual thing about his story is that he came forward.

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Featured image: Hajdú D. András, Abcúg

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