A Roma women with dog. Photo: Wikimedia.

Conference reports The Ethnification of Poverty Some remarks on a panel debate arranged by Historical studies, Södertörns högskola

The panel debate “Mendicancy, poverty and Swedish society” was organized the 20th of May at Södertörn University, with the intention to flesh out an emotionally loaded political topic with professional background knowledge.

Published on balticworlds.com on June 9, 2015

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They have become part of our daily life experience here in Sweden. We meet them at the Central Station, in front of ICA and Hemköp, on the subway or on the train: Women and men asking for money, sometimes by words, more often by gestures, equipped with a paper cup and sometimes a picture of alleged family members in need. And we, who just had a hot shower and breakfast at home or spent a considerable amount of money at the grocery store are forced to relate to them. Even though we, the bypassers, may produce very different kinds of emotions, reaching from compassion over uneasiness to aggression, do we seem to share one common feeling–emotional overload.

On May 20th, 2015, the research unit Historical studies at Södertörns högskola organized the panel debate “Mendicancy, poverty and Swedish society” [Tiggeri, fattigdom och det svenska samhället] in order to come to terms with this phenomenon. The intention of the debate was to flesh out an emotionally loaded political topic with professional background knowledge. As the title indicates, however, one key concern of the debate was to explicitly problematize the role of Swedish society.

Invited were three guests from different fields of expertise: Mircea Budulean, working for Crossroads at the NGO Stockholm City Mission where help is offered to unemployed migrants; Josefine Hökerberg, journalist at the daily  Swedish morning paper Dagens Nyheter, who in 2013 attracted national attention by her award-winning article series on Romanian beggars in Stockholm; and Annika Sandén, historian at Stockholm university, specialized on early modern history, who signs responsible for a likewise award-winning publication on poverty and social exclusion in Sweden from a historical perspective (Holmlund, Sofia/Sandén, Annika: Usla, elenda och arma. Samhällets utsatta under 700 år, Stockholm 2013). The discussion was led by Ann-Judith Rabenschlag, Phd in History and research coordinator of Historical studies.

Many beggars on Stockholm’s streets come from Eastern Europe – and many appear to be Roma. Has poverty in Sweden become a question of ethnicity?

All guests show themselves to be utterly skeptical:

“To use the terms Roma and beggars almost synonymously is highly problematical”, states Mircea Budulean. “It not only excludes those people living on the streets who are not Roma. It also leads to the assumption that it is ethnicity which is the problem and it adds to a further stigmatization of this group.”

Most people in the room seem to agree: It is poverty that is the problem, not ethnicity. Nevertheless, ethnicity seems to be part of the picture, at least in our perception: To consider beggardom to be a Roma-problem leads to an ethnification of poverty. In order to avoid to confront poverty as a general social problem we label it to be an ethnic one.

Josefine Hökerberg has travelled several times to Romania. In 2013, she followed a Romanian family back home to their village.

“We started our investigation under the impression of the widespread rumors on organized criminality”, Josefine Hökerberg states.

“What we found, however, did not match this picture. The family we accompanied back home had really begged in order to collect money for their family members. A disabled daughter whose picture had been shown to the Swedish bypassers really existed and had the exact disability as claimed on the picture.”

“We did not find any proofs for organized criminal networks”, Josefine Hökerberg tells. “We were, however, confronted with a type of poverty which is impossible to imagine. People are living in mud huts. It is unbelievable that this kind of poverty exists within Europe, not so far away from us.”

Mircea Budulean agrees. At Stockholm City Mission, he has never met anyone who gave the impression of being forced to beg. It is the miserable situation in their home countries which forces these people to beg on the streets, not criminal networks.

Does that mean then that we live in a time of exceptional poverty?

Historian Annika Sandén disagrees. Even though this kind of poverty might be experienced as a new phenomenon by many contemporary Swedes, it is far away from being new when we look at it in a broader historical perspective, she states.

There have always been “outcasts” to society, people who did not belong. In early modern times, for example, Sweden was confronted with a drastically growing numbers of beggars. The population grew and failed harvests and hunger pushed people out on the streets. Already then, Annika points out, society was eager to put people in different categories. In the middle of the 17th century, a new regulation divided the beggars into two different groups – the “just poor” and the “unjust poor”. Only the so-called just poor, those who were considered to not be responsible for their own misery, were from now on allowed to beg.

The modern welfare state has the ambition to supply all its citizens with at least a minimum of social support, enough to prevent people from being forced to beg on the streets. The idea of the welfare state, however, seems to be closely connected with the concept of a rather isolated national state. Political reality, on the other hand, looks different today. The European Union grants all its citizens the freedom of movement. Is not this an unsolved problem?

Mircea Budulean disagrees.

“No, we should stop consider poor migrants as a problem only. These people are a chance for us to get in contact with reality. The poverty in their home countries is real and has existed even before we were confronted with it. To have these people in our cities presents a chance for us to reflect upon ourselves and, in the best case, to strengthen our civil society. And in the future, some of these migrants might even add to our society. Yes, we do need to invest money and education, but it is worth it. ”

The discussion closes with a question posed by DN-journalist Josefine Hökerberg, a question which remains unanswered:

“If we decide to prohibit mendicancy, equally as we decided to prohibit prostitution, and criminalize these ways of supporting oneself, if we close all these doors – which doors do we open for these people to support themselves?”

  • by Ann-Judith Rabenschlag

    PhD in History and postdoctoral researcher at the Department of History at Stockholm University. Current research concerns historical semantics (discourse analysis, conceptual history); migration, integration, intercultural communication; identity building in societies and nations. She has a focus on modern European history.

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