Accessibility links

Breaking News

Elderly Greeks Tapping Pensions Fear Cuts Could Hit Hard

A pensioner waits in front of the main entrance of a National Bank branch to receive part of his pension in central Athens, July 9, 2015.

When Greece imposed cash withdrawal limits, pensioner Roza Alverti stopped paying her utility bills and focused on putting food on the table for her two grown and unemployed grandchildren, who live in her spotless one-bedroom apartment with a sliver of a view of the Acropolis about six kilometers (four miles) away.

But now the 83-year-old widow worries even that may be impossible if the country cuts pensions to secure another bailout loan this weekend and stay within the eurozone.

The government is racing this weekend to approve the cuts as part of a package to be presented Sunday to European leaders in an attempt to prevent Greece from being forced to exit the eurozone. This comes less than a week after Greeks resoundingly voted against an earlier bailout proposal, with Alverti among those joining the victorious "no'' side.

"I remember World War II and I think this could become worse,'' said Alverti, who was a child during the war, living on the island of Tinos. "In the villages on the island, we didn't have much food and we were hungry, but it was easy to find an egg or vegetables. Food doesn't grow on the streets in Athens.''

Alverti, a retired apartment building concierge, probably won't find out for months how much her 900 euro ($1,007) monthly pension will be reduced. The country's administration won't impose cuts until next year, and is unlikely to finalize details on who gets hit — and by how much — until the fall.

But she's already getting a taste of how bad it could be, thanks to the capital controls imposed two weeks ago that limit bank withdrawals — part of Greece's bid to keep its banks from going under. Pensioners without cash cards are able to take out 120 euros per week; people with ATM cards can withdraw 60 euros per day.

With Alverti getting half the money she usually expects per month, it was an easy decision to stop paying her bills for phone, electricity and water, even though she prided herself on always paying on time.

She had to stop the payments in order to keep buying enough food for her 27-year-old unemployed waitress granddaughter and her 24-year-old jobless electrician's assistant grandson, who have lived with her for years since her divorced daughter died of cancer.

"My biggest fear is for my grandchildren and I'm trying not to talk with them about it,'' she said, sighing. "But my grandson understands what's going on, and he says, 'Grandma, you can cook me eggs, not meat.' ''

Many elderly Greeks like Alverti never got ATM cards or signed up for Internet banking because they were used to going to the bank every month to receive their full pension payment after it was automatically deposited by the government. Greece's pensions must be cut, experts agree, because the system is speeding toward insolvency.

State spending on pensions has risen from 11.7 percent of gross domestic product before the financial crisis to 16.2 percent as the economy shrank. The average in the European Union is about 12 percent.

And the burden on the state is expected to grow dramatically as the number of pensioners — currently 2.6 million out of a total population of 11 million — keeps rising.

Greece is hurt more because it has the sixth-oldest population in the world, according to U.N. data. Over 20 percent of Greeks are age 65 and over, a share the EU statistics agency expects to jump to 33 percent in 2060.

The situation is complicated because Greece's unemployment rate stands at nearly 26 percent, and many of the jobless like Alverti's grandchildren rely on the pensions of their relatives. About 52 percent of Greek households say pensions are their most important source of income, according to a study published in January and commissioned by the country's main small-business association, GSEVEE.

But many Greeks who receive modest pensions say they'll pay a big part of the price for public sector workers who managed to retire early.

"There are lots of pensioners who worked until they were only about 50 and got huge pensions,'' said Vassiliki Gouvousi, 80, as she lined up at a bank to withdraw her daily currency control limit of 60 euros.

Papadropoulos Prodromos, a retired musician, gets just 470 euros a month now and is scheduled to start receiving 670 after he turns 65 in August. But he said he wasn't worried about pension cuts because he believes Greece's far-left government run by the Syriza party will single out the rich.

"What can they do, give me nothing?'' he asked. "I don't think so. The pension cuts will probably hit the high-earning pensioners, not the low ones.''

Retired bookkeeper Androniki Perdika, 78, fretted in line about the uncertainties promised for life with a bailout deal, and without one. Her biggest fear was that bailout talks would collapse, leading to moves to impose bank account deposit levies.

"I'm terribly afraid of what might happen because I can't take out all the money I want to,'' Perdika said, "and I don't know what the future will bring.''

Alverti said taxes on bank deposits wouldn't be such a bad thing if the rich are the only ones targeted.

"They wouldn't suffer so much,'' she said. "But the problem is that a lot of them took their money out of the banks before the capital controls, leaving us poor people here with a government that's done nothing.''