SEATTLE — When people think of Croatia, they usually recall its violent occupation by Serbian forces during the 1990s. They may also consider the country to be a victim of the Cold War. However, despite its stellar recovery, poverty in Croatia today mimics that of other developed nations.
There is still much to praise. Life expectancy in Croatia holds at a respectable 78 years. There are more Croatian women in congress (24 percent) than there are in the U.S., and its GNI per capita of $13,994 ranks it as a “high income economy.”
But like U.S. poverty measurements, poverty in Croatia concerns how citizens are poor rather than why.
Many rich countries have moved beyond the mere measure of poverty to the question of how it is distributed. Croatia is no exception. A recent UNICEF report has documented how the “great recession” has increased the number of children in poverty in developed nations to 76.5 million.
Ivica Rubil, from the Zagreb Institute of Economics, reveals that Croatia’s 21 counties each experience poverty differently. Some exhibit a greater departure from the poverty line, while others show a greater degree of income inequality among their poor.
Rubil calls these two differences poverty depth and poverty severity.
Such notions may influence how Croatian politicians approach poverty. Member of Parliament Mladen Levak has observed, “Yes there is food, but not for all—for some, opportunities pile up while for others, poverty piles up.” Levak’s observation highlights the deepening rift between rich and poor that affects the allocation of welfare programs in his country.
It becomes difficult to identify which populations have been most affected when there are only two poles: affluent or non-affluent.
The county of Pozega-Slavonija serves as an illustration. In terms of poverty depth, it ranks sixth. When measured by poverty severity, however, it rises to third place, which means that its poor experience greater income differences among themselves than in most other counties.
How, then, should poverty in Croatia be addressed? The causes are familiar: rising foreign debt, excessive bureaucratic interference in business, access to education.
For example, foreign debt amounted to 108 percent of GDP in 2014, while entry into the labor force stagnated at 51 percent. Doing Business, a publication by the World Bank, placed Croatia at 40th out of 185 countries for ease of transactions.
In 2003, the demand for unskilled workers began receding, and 29.5 percent of job-seekers waited more than three years for employment. Among poor children, only 10 percent attend secondary school.
Most people know Croatia for its struggle against the Serbs, and this also reflected in its U.S. foreign aid.
Assistance to Croatia peaked during the 2000s as it recovered from war, with a total of $405 million disbursed up until 2002. In 2013, the U.S. committed $28 million in aid, intended to improve some of the aforementioned obstacles to growth.
Croatia has endured a six-year-long recession that only broke in 2015, and over that time, the number of children in poverty rose by over 50 percent. This is alarming given its already high youth unemployment rate of 43.1 percent, among the highest in the European Union.
It therefore remains essential for U.S. aid to continue flowing into Croatian hands, as its already high performance among the Balkan states could transform it into a leader in development.
Until then, Croatia’s inequality will persist under the mantle of progress. Its case underscores how poverty can affect even the richer nations in the world.
– Alfredo Cumerma