No Roma integration without a welfare state

Contrary to often voiced opinion, Central Europe has not really made a serious attempt at Roma emancipation. While governments in the region have launched a number of ‘Roma integration’ initiatives, these have rarely brought results, even worse, they have often served merely to fuel resentment among non-Roma populations. While anti-racism measures are important, what we really need are color-blind general welfare regimes to create social mobility for poor citizens. There is no other way out of the poverty-discrimination trap.

Foto: Tomáš Rafa (

Central European media is full of stories about violent discrimination against the Roma. From the Czech Republic and Slovakia we hear about the walling off of local Roma communities, while in Hungary there have even been a series of racially motivated murders.

There is clearly a great deal of tension between the Roma and non-Roma in Eastern Europe. Over the past twenty years there has been a kind of deadlock in the accounts given for this tension in mainstream public discourse. One side identifies the Roma themselves, their ‘inability’ and ‘unwillingness’ to assimilate, as the root cause. This argument ignores those Roma who fit perfectly well into society, and more importantly, any responsibility wider society might share for the plight of the Roma.

The other side places the blame entirely at the door of majority populations, whom it sees as largely prejudiced. This view represents the Roma as passive victims of deliberate discrimination, and chooses to ignore the complexity of inter-group-conflicts. This latter view sees the situation through the prism of human rights, and overlooks any underlying socio-economic causes. The EU, with its notorious lack of competencies in this area, belongs to the second group. Tertium non datur.

Whether we account for the tension by concentrating on either assimilation or human rights as the two prevailing models do, we end up missing the history, the sociology and the economics of the issue. The Roma have been an excluded minority for centuries, hence their Eastern European name, ‘tsigani’, which means outcast in Greek. They owned no property and were often travellers. State socialist systems in the 20th century attempted to ameliorate the situation by schooling them, with a large degree of success, and introducing their male members to the lower end of the job market, also with great success.

The process was not always smooth, state policy often rested on forced displacement and the tearing up of family ties, but it was leading somewhere. Post-industrialization and the post-socialist economic transitions, however, reversed this trend. Roma men were among the first to be fired, and the social situation of the entire community declined. This is a tragedy because, as the example of former colonies demonstrates, structural discrimination takes not just one or two generations but centuries to overcome even when a genuine attempt is being made.

Painting the Roma with a dirty brush

Today the social situation of the Roma is wildly different from that of the rest of the population. Eastern Europeans are themselves poor, but on an emerging economy standard. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that a large part of the Roma live at a third world standard. In fact the term ‘Roma’ in itself has become synonymous with ‘underclass’. In spite of numerous similarities, the difference between African Americans in the US and Gipsies in Eastern Europe is that the former stay black even when they become successful basketball players, comedians, presidents, or lawyers and doctors. Eastern European Roma, on the other hand, are more likely to disappear into the middle classes.

It is a fallacy to imagine the Roma as a watertight ethnic category. A great many Eastern Europeans have Roma ancestors they are simply not aware of. This is because the social mainstream is willing to treat successful Roma as integrated, ‘white’, one of their own. On the other hand racially non-Roma underclass families are easily labelled as ‘Gipsies’ if they fail to meet certain social expectations. Thus, while the overlap is huge, ‘Gipsy’ becomes more of a codename for ‘underclass’, with an ethnicizing flavour. (A similar overlapping ethnicization takes place at the other end of the social spectrum, with regards to Jews and the elite; mainstream narratives find it hard to imagine a poor Jew.) In fact we shall never know how many ethnic Roma there are in the V4 countries. In Hungary there are estimated to be anywhere between 300 000 to 800 000 Roma. In Slovakia the range is even wider, revolving around 400 000 in a country of five and a half million. No one really knows how many Roma there are in the Czech Republic.

In fact no one will ever accurately measure the number of Roma in these countries as the category of “Roma” is a very fluid one based on outside and inside ascription, social status, etc., and not a rigidly objective ethnic distinction. This problem of numbers in itself exposes the dishonesty of public relations exercises such as the Roma Decade of Inclusion. How were policy makers ever going to monitor and assess the success of Roma inclusion if they did not even know the size of the population that was to be affected? They were not going to, of course, because then they would have realised that Roma policy would have to be in fact the provision of education, employment, social services and health care for the poor. In short, a welfare model that they were not ready for.

This Gipsy underclass lives in very bad housing conditions, often segregated, and often in makeshift shanties, especially in Slovakia. Surveys suggest that around 80 percent of Roma belong to the lowest fifth of Hungarian society (which of course does not mean that they form the majority even in these poor cohorts.) The Roma almost only have other Roma as their peers which severely limits social capital, and inhibits both mobility and distancing from the culture of poverty. Almost no Roma earn a university degree, and they are massively underrepresented even at the intermediary educational levels. The elementary school achievements of Hungarian students are 72% dependent on where they go to school. The same indicator in Finland is only 9%. Quality education would be the most obvious way of encouraging social mobility, yet the Roma are by and large deprived of it. Even physical mobility is uneven. It often takes hours to reach the nearest metropolitan centre from certain peripheral regions of Eastern Europe. Not surprisingly, in these areas where unemployment is high even among the non-Roma, the ‘Gipsy underclass’ is excluded from scarce employment networks, and is essentially without formal jobs. The indignant mainstream only sees Roma who live on welfare or are forced to engage in sublegal activities, thus reinforcing the stereotype. The Hungarian Court of Auditors has published a report on post-transition Roma policies, and has assessed them as fractured, incoherent, unmonitored, and ineffective as public policy.

Criminality is understandably more prevalent among the underclass. It is important to remind people that there is no such thing as ‘Gipsy crime’, which is to say that the Roma are not inherently criminals. Yet this does not eliminate the fact that certain forms of crime are prevalent in the underclass. Crime statistics here do not help. If we do not know who the Roma are, and by definition we shall never know, we shall never have a means to disprove the public image. And the public image of poverty related crime connected to the Gipsy underclass will exist as long as massive social differences continue to exist. To this picture we should add the various neoliberal measures intended to save on the police force. A constantly understaffed and underequipped local police force reinforces the idea in local populations that they have to take matters into their own hands.

The Roma can´t take what has never been available to them

We often hear the argument that the Roma just keep taking and never want to contribute. In fact there is a certain stratum of Roma, especially in larger urban centres, who hold steady jobs, do not give the appearance of being totally deprived, and are relatively well integrated into the mainstream. On a purely ethnic basis, they suffer from the prejudice that is carried over from the associated attributes of the image of the ‘underclass Roma’. Thus it is extremely hard to move away from all of this. Those who are successful often change their name and disassociate themselves from their roots. The notion that society provides all the help one could need and yet Roma just keep on taking is not true, in fact, the converse is true!

A substantive policy for the improvement of the social condition of the Roma has not yet been put forward in post-transition Central and Eastern Europe. We have never created, financed or monitored any public policy that would have mobilized the ethnicized Gipsy underclass out of the backwardness created as a consequence of so many centuries. There is nothing really Roma specific in assisting the impoverished and incapacitated Roma, nor could we measure the effectiveness of such a policy without forcefully ascribing Roma identity externally, and thus defining the size of our target population. This is no way to proceed. What we need are functioning ‘color blind’ systems of education, employment and social policy, public transport and healthcare that create equality of output rather than the wholly inadequate equality of opportunity that is talked about but not achieved today.

More than just money

Due to the way Eastern European countries attempt to compete with low wages in the global economy, resentment on the part of majority populations, whose income levels are not far above the average meagre social benefits on offer, continues to be engendered towards minorities. Since the thin middle classes have no substantial savings, they are fearful of falling into the level of the Gipsy underclass, and therefore try to distance themselves mentally. Higher starting wages, possibly as a consequence of minimum wages financed from a progressive tax system, could widen the gap between welfare and work, reduce jealousy and fear, and even induce more people to take up work.

At the moment ordinary people have the ethnicized underclass constantly in sight. Their ‘parasitical lifestyle’ is scapegoated for the low living standards of the masses, even though total social spending on the lowest tenth of society, including support to the non-Roma, takes up no more than 1.6 percent of GDP. (This data is for Hungary, overall social spending in Slovakia is even lower.) A fraction of even that nominal amount leaks out of state budgets in the form of corruption and clientalism, or is spent on an inefficient state and its poor economic policy. That, of course, is much less visible, and citizens feel powerless to change it. It feels less futile and psychologically more relieving to target one’s indignation not at the abstract, the unknown and the far away, but against those present, familiar, troubling and in direct conflict.

Human rights are doubtless important. Anti-racist campaigns are vital. Beyond issues of discrimination, however, the Gipsy issue is a socio-economic challenge. The sustainable elevation of the poverty trapped Roma populations of Eastern Europe requires a proactive welfare state.

Béla Janky

Béla Janky

is the Director at the Institute of Sociology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. His main research areas are the Roma of Hungary, welfare preferences, economic sociology and rational choice theory.

Zoltán Pogátsa

Zoltán Pogátsa

is an international political economist. His home institution is the Faculty of Economics at the University of Western Hungary.