Georgia’s Economic Upswing Leaves the Vulnerable Behind
With all eyes on Georgia and its newly elected parliament, my recent visit to this colorful, welcoming country gave me some valuable insight into the larger reality beyond news headlines that boast of a rapid boom and standout economic growth. Development often brings growing pains, and the country's most vulnerable people are the first to feel them. With no social safety net to fall back on, the situation for many is incredibly stark.
On my first day in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, one startling fact put this macro picture into dramatic perspective:
There are people here who have been living without hot water for over 20 years. Since the fall of Communism, those who want hot water—something most of us could never live without—must buy expensive heaters for themselves and pay utility bills of up to $300 in the winter months. (This lump sum does include home heating, as well as energy to power the stove and keep the lights on.)
But people who live on $2 per day—pensioners mostly, but also many single-income families who fall below the poverty line—simply go without. They opt instead to heat water by the bucketful, and collect pinecones, newspapers from trash bins, and discarded wood from crumbling homes each winter to throw into their stoves to keep warm.
Along with energy costs, food prices here have increased exponentially—at least three-fold in three years for certain goods. As a result, many people can no longer afford even the most basic necessities, especially when the average monthly income is $200 to $250.
And that’s for those lucky enough to have a job—primarily the young and the Western educated. The vast majority of people are routinely laid off after age 40, never to find work again. This explains why there are so many single-income families here, and many who suddenly have no income at all. Job advertisements commonly request that applicants be under 35, and unemployment is disproportionately high among people over this age. Knowing they are likely to have only a few productive years to amass income, people seek Western educations to increase their marketable skills.
Unemployment benefits are unknown in Georgia, while pensions, meager as they are, are not paid until age 60 for women, 65 for men. And there is nowhere to turn for help.
All this begins to explain why there are hundreds of young children on JDC’s welfare caseload in Tbilisi. Through the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews-JDC Partnership for Children in the Former Soviet Union, struggling families turn to the local Hesed welfare center for assistance with basic food, medicines, and clothing needs.
What is daily life like for an average family subsisting on JDC's lifeline of assistance? I'll find out tomorrow, on my first home visit in Tbilisi's periphery….
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