TCS Daily

France's New Poverty

By John Rosenthal - July 10, 2006 12:00 AM

In Summer 2004, the New York Times declared that the great day had arrived: Europe had eliminated -- nay, "abolished," as if by a legislative act-- poverty: or, at any rate, its "desperate" variety. "Even America's defenders must admit to the persistence of poverty amid plenty," the Times reporter Richard Bernstein wrote in an August 8 piece ("Does Europe Need to Get a Life?"), "and, by contrast, the abolition of desperate poverty in Europe."

Bernstein attributed this remarkable accomplishment to the European "continent": a continent that notably includes Albania, for instance: a country with a per capita Gross National Income, according to World Bank statistics, of roughly $2,000 per year. But let us be generous and allow that Bernstein was taking poetic license in referring to the "continent" and really meant to refer just to the European Union. And let us be even more generous and assume that the triumphal claim of Europe's "abolition" of poverty was in fact only meant to apply to the "EU-15" and not also the 10 mostly Eastern European countries -- including, for instance, Slovakia (2004 per capita GNI: $6,480) and Latvia (2004 per capita GNI: $5,580) -- that entered the EU in May 2004. It will presumably take a bit of time still for the EU to work its poverty-abolishing magic on these new member-states.

But even with these limitations, this still leaves us with several Southern European EU member-states, the residents of whose poorest regions -- the South of Italy, for instance, or Extremadura in Spain -- will undoubtedly be especially delighted to learn that the poverty that they experience daily has been "abolished." Thus, for example, according to the EU's own comparative income data (2001 "Laeken indicators"), the median income in Portugal for a single adult is roughly €8,000 per year and for a family of four, just under €17,000. This implies that roughly half of the Portuguese population lives below the monetary threshold of poverty as defined by the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Nonetheless, if it has not quite succeeded in "abolishing" poverty yet, the EU has indeed managed to make a remarkably large share of poverty in Europe disappear -- that is, as far as the official statistics are concerned. Thus, the EU statistical office, Eurostat, defines the poverty line -- or rather what it more gingerly describes as "the risk-of-poverty threshold" -- not in absolute terms, as in the US statistics, but rather as 60 percent of the median national income in each country. Thus, for example, the Portuguese "risk-of-poverty" threshold for a family of four gets set at around €10,000.

Given the massive disparities in income among European countries, this convention makes for some interesting results. Whereas, for instance, according to Eurostat, a German family of four is "at risk" of falling into poverty with an annual income of €20,000, a Romanian family of four only "risks" poverty with an income roughly ten times less. (See here for a comparative chart from Eurostat including Germany [DE] and Romania [RO].) In this way, the EU has already eliminated a great deal of poverty in Romania even before the country's formal adhesion to the EU scheduled for 2007. Reason enough for the New York Times to be impressed!

If EU statistical evidence does not lend itself to perceiving poverty in Europe, however, the evidence before one's eyes is less deceptive. Moreover, one does not have to go to the Eastern or Southern outskirts of the EU to see poverty in Europe. It is also very much present in the European "core" and in a form that neither allows it to be overlooked, nor for its degree of "desperation" to be doubted: namely, homelessness. In Summer 2004, at the very time that the New York Times was declaring poverty in Europe "abolished," the streets of Paris were already bearing ample witness to what has become an explosion in homelessness reminiscent of the worst years of the New York City homeless crisis of the 1980s.

On New Year's Eve 2005-2006, a Paris resident launched a photo blog, ironically titled "The French Social Model", documenting the phenomenon. The anonymous photographer's explanation of his or her motivations for placing the images on line speaks eloquently to the dimensions that the problem of homelessness in Paris has taken on:

I'm not here to show misery because of what it is: unbearable. Those images are the reality of France. I take pictures of them on my every day trips to earn my life.... I don't plan my trips in order to take pictures of homeless; they merely are here, sitting next to millions of Parisians. ...[T]he most dramatic thing is, admitting of course that they shouldn't be so numerous, homeless people became as familiar as pigeons are for Parisians: they can see them everywhere... I've been hesitating for a long time, thinking I had to respect those poor guys' privacy and dignity. But I had to do so, I had to show what France had become....

To date, "The French Social Model" contains some 397 photos of homeless people on the streets and in the subways of Paris.

It took a highly publicized campaign by the French NGO Médecins du Monde, which has been distributing tents to Paris's homeless, to induce the New York Times finally to take notice of the phenomenon in a May 4 article titled "For Migrants and the Poor, Tents Must Count as Homes."

Coming nearly two years after it pronounced European poverty non-existent, one might think that this belated acknowledgment of Parisian homelessness might be a source of some embarrassment for the paper. But no. As if in an attempt to salvage the postulate of the supreme efficacy of European social protection even in the face of manifest evidence to the contrary, the Times article manages to transform seemingly the vast majority of Paris's homeless into... Poles: "Two Poles live in the tents left by Doctors of the World and Franck shares his, left by a passer-by, with another Pole..."; "While the doctor examined Franck's ear, a tall Polish man dressed in denim and with a fresh haircut approached Mr. Borg..."; "On Boulevard Montparnasse, where Polish men have gathered eight tents under a railroad bridge...."; "Not far away three young Poles, who gave their names as Roberto, Raphael and Annette, huddled in a tent with a pit bull named Ares.... Though they speak only rudimentary French, Roberto and Raphael said they each earned about $2,000 a month in construction."

The article limits itself to asserting merely that "many" of Paris's homeless are "newly arrived immigrants from European Union countries to the east." But inasmuch as Times reporter Craig Smith managed to turn up only one French person amidst this veritable sea of Poles, the otherwise uninformed reader is left naturally to infer that this "many" is at least "most," if not indeed virtually all. This impression will only be reinforced by the fact that the single Frenchman, "Franck", is said to have been on the streets already for some 13 years.

The Times's remarkable discovery that Paris's new homeless are in fact relatively affluent Polish construction workers will come as news, above all, to Parisians. A similar article that appeared only days before the Times piece in the French daily Le Figaro ("Avec les naufrages de la vie"; April 28, 2006) portrayed a sample of Parisian homeless with a very different sociological background -- and who, oddly enough, were French. There was, for instance, Michel from the French provinces: "a chef by training, but who hasn't practiced his profession for a good three years." And Jean-Guy: "a painter-decorator. Just five years ago, he worked on jobs in Paris, at the Théâtre du Chatelet, and in the provinces." And Bruno: a 25-year-old who has been unemployed for nearly three years and who reports: "I worked in delivery, until my boss had to close shop. Then I took retraining courses to become a driver for corporations. But I didn't get taken! For a year and half now, it's been hell. I don't have enough money to get an apartment....The only choice I've got is the street."

One of the most telling features of Paris's new homeless, moreover, is the striking presence of retirement age women among them. This is not exactly the profile that one would expect for a Polish construction worker. Such women can sometimes be seen sitting on the street surrounded by what are evidently their life possessions. (The author has himself photographed such cases on the Rue de Rivoli in the very heart of Paris's posh 4th arrondissement.) A more glaring symptom of just how porous France's social safety net has in fact become is hardly imaginable.

But the New York Times's man in Paris evidently does not see such things or does not understand them when he does. Thus despite homeless people having become "as familiar as pigeons" to Parisians, Craig Smith can write reassuringly that "there are still relatively few homeless people in France." To support this wildly counterintuitive assertion, he vaguely alludes to a "2001 survey": i.e. a study that was conducted before Paris's current homeless crisis became manifest. The fact is that we do not know how many homeless persons there are in France today. France's National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) has yet to repeat the headcount it conducted in 2001.

Some hard data are, however, available. For example the following: from November 2005 to May 2006, 122 homeless people are known to have died in the street in France. This figure represents only those cases that the Parisian association Les Morts dans la rue [The Dead of the Street] has been able to document. The real number of such cases is presumably much higher. Lists of persons buried by the association Morts dans la rue in 2005 and 2006 (through May) are available here and here on the site of the Paris Mayor's office. The lists concern only persons who died in Paris. When available, the place of birth is also provided. As readers will be able to confirm for themselves, the vast majority were born in France.

John Rosenthal's writings on international politics have appeared in Policy Review, the Opinion Journal, Les Temps Modernes and Merkur. He is the editor of the Transatlantic Intelligencer (


TCS Daily Archives