SEATTLE — The United Kingdom and Romania are roughly identical in terms of land mass. Both of these countries are also in Europe, but they exist at the opposite ends of the continent, and as a result, differ in innumerable ways. This geographical difference has historically carried great political significance, with the U.K. being one of the bastions of the western world and Romania being a Soviet satellite state until 1989. In 1982, Nicolae Ceaușescu ordered the exportation of most of Romania’s agricultural and industrial production. This resulted in a large-scale reduction in the quality of life for Romanians. The U.K., by contrast, avoided this stark dropoff of living standards in the 1980s, though it was a decade colored by reactionary politics for the country.
Poverty Disparities Between Eastern and Western Europe Persist into the Present Day
The stark contrast between the two nations in terms of prosperity did not end after the Cold War. Even today, comparing the two countries proves indicative of poverty disparities between eastern and western Europe. The U.K.’s national poverty rate is 16.7 percent and Romania’s is above 25 percent. The contrast between poverty in England and poverty in Romania is not an isolated case, but one which is endemic to the continent.
Even Germany, a key western economy, bears similar marks of a division of wealth between east and west 25 years after unification. A 2015 article by the Guardian stated that the risk of someone in eastern Germany slipping into poverty is 25 percent higher than it is for their western compatriots.
The Balkan countries are also characterized by more widespread poverty than countries in western Europe. A rather poignant example of this is Albania, in which about 25 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, a level which is simply not seen in western Europe.
The most important question is whether the poverty disparities between eastern and western Europe are growing or narrowing. The answer is not an absolute yes or no, but it seems that in broad terms the contrast between the two European halves is lessening.
Many Eastern European Countries Making Major Strides in Poverty Reduction
According to data published by the World Bank in 2017, when comparing the annual growth rate in gross domestic product among EU countries, eight of the 10 countries with the highest growth rates are located within eastern Europe. It seems that many former eastern bloc countries are steadily catching up to their western counterparts.
Furthermore, a chart done by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe illustrates the change in the percentage of people below the basic needs national poverty line, and it shows a progression from data taken in 2002, 2008 and 2013. In Russia, Moldova, Azerbaijan and Belarus, there was a precipitous drop in poverty levels between 2002 and 2013, the most extreme being in Azerbaijan, in which the percentage of the population below the basic needs national poverty line dropped from more than 45 percent in 2002 to roughly 5 percent in 2013. The most recent statistics place the percentage of the population below the poverty line in Azerbaijan at 5.9 percent.
In Romania, in 2008, the percentage of the population which was at risk for poverty or social exclusion was 44 percent; the 2017 estimate places this number at 35.5 percent. The percentage of the population who were at risk for poverty or social exclusion was 22.2 percent in the U.K. in 2016. These two figures show that while there is still work that needs to be done, the poverty disparities between eastern and western Europe are shrinking, and in the coming years a less economically polarized Europe could mean greater prosperity for a whole continent.
– William Menchaca