Greeks Struggle to Pay Bills

The t-shirt in an Athens store said it all: "No job, no money -- NO PROBLEM." Unemployment is at 27 percent. But youth unemployment is at a heartbreaking 60 percent.

Greeks may smile and enjoy the Mediterranean winds and sun but inside they are suffering the worst days since the end of World War II.

The suicide rate has risen by 45 percent since 2008, when the economic crisis swept through here, affecting many if not most of the 11 million people in this ancient land.

John Sifonios is one of those who is suffering. He leaned back against the 800-year-old-stone walls of his jewelry shop in the Old Town of Rhodes recently and told how his life has changed since the crisis.

His family income is slashed, prices climb and the Euro buys less each week. His wife used to earn about $1,000 a month as a cosmetologist but got laid off and went on unemployment.

But then the government -- anxious to show wealthy European nations such as Germany that Greece is willing to tighten its belt and cut spending -- reduced unemployment payments and limited them to three weeks. "Now she doesn't earn anything; she stays home," said Sifonios. And how do they cope? They eat each night at his parents' place where "we cook a big pot of food for 20 people. It is cheaper than if we cook for ourselves."

A taxi driver told me that before the crisis, he earned $4,000 per month as a civil engineer. Now he earns about $600 a month driving a taxi 10 hours each day.

"We used to travel around Europe and the Greek islands," he said. "No more. All I can do is to pay the rent. It will take a long time before things are back to how they were."

The Greek crisis made headlines around the world in in 2008 when Athens was threatened with default and possible expulsion from the group of 18 states that share the Euro as common currency. Each euro currently buys about U.S. $1.37. Lately there are signs that the Greek economy is improving. The government now projects its first budget surplus in many years.

And Euro zone financiers in early April decided to offer another eight billion euros in loans to prop up Greece. The price for the loans has been raising copayments on medicine and cutting salaries for teachers and other public sector workers from $1,000 to $600 per month.

"We questioned our students last year and found eight out of 10 want to try to leave Greece," said Oliver Bailey, director of student life at New York College, a Greek school linked to The State College of New York. Speaking in a shady courtyard as Greek students passed by hauling books and cell phones, and as Euro Zone financiers met across the street, Bailey said many students find it hard to afford fees. "The Greek people are always adaptable to big changes," he said. But the crisis is largely due to Greek attitudes and lax financial practices, he admitted. "We were eating out of our loans -- since the 1980s we lived on borrowed money." The crisis hit during the world-wide recession that swept America and Europe in 2008-2009, cutting back on tourism which has been the mainstay of Greek economy. Previous left governments had allowed unions to hamstring local industry which withered and fled at the constant strikes. In the past week, for example, strikes paralyzed the huge ships that connect Greek ports and far flung Aegean Islands.

Strikes also were held by primary school teachers, caregivers to the elderly and infirm and pharmacists leery of laws allowing large supermarkets to sell drugs. "This situation makes people hopeless about studying and everything else," said Bailey. "They think nothing can help. They fear they will not find jobs and get a good life. This paralyzes people and they don't try to achieve what they can. It will take time to recover." Many young people now are not able to get married because they have no job or apartment. "We work really hard, but Germans think everyone is a public servant doing half the work of the private sector workers," Bailey said.

Cafes are open everywhere and people of all ages love to sit and chat. You can still smoke cigarettes at the tables. But people are struggling to survive.

Sifonios said he recently bought a car from a woman who could not afford the payments and switched to a $1,000 motor scooter.

"But she will still have to pay off her loan and won't be able to do it. Her credit will be ruined and she will never get another loan for a car or a home or apartment."

He admits that his family now finds clothes in the back of the closet that are 10 years out of style but they must wear them.

"People feel ashamed," said Bailey.

The government has come up with a solution to avoid mortgage defaults: You only have to pay a certain percentage of your salary. So when your wages fall from $5 per hour to $3, your mortgage payments also fall. But it means you'll need many more years to pay off the loan and total interest payments will rise.

Demosthenes Davvetas, an assistant counselor to the prime minister and professor of art and philosophy at New York College here, said there are two sides to the Greek dilemma: "On one side we say we are making sacrifices for a better life, but on the left are people who do not believe in free markets. They look to the state to take care of everything."

Some also blame Germany for lending Greece money in past decades that they knew Greece could not repay. Others say Germany owes more than $100 billion in reparations for its occupation of Greece in World War II.

In early April the Euro zone financiers agreed to release 8.3 billion euros in rescue loans to Greece. It was a sign Europe believed Greece is emerging from its crisis.

But for the ordinary people looking for work in Athens and elsewhere, recovery will take a long, long time.