chapter  7
Deprivation, the Roma and ‘the underclass’
ByMichael Stewart
Pages 24

The plight of the Romany peoples or Roma of Eastern Europe has been intensively addressed since the ‘changes’ of 1989, mainly in Anglo-American NGO-speak.1

The tide began to rise with a memorable series of reports by various wings of Human Rights Watch in the early 1990s, followed by many further reports and briefings on the often intolerable position of Romany minorities (see, most recently, Zoon 2001). The migration of thousands of Roma to Western Europe and North America has highlighted in the West the view, first articulated by liberals in the East, that the treatment of this group is a litmus test for the ‘new democracies’. For the time being at least, it is a test that consistently shows an unpleasant hue. More recently, sociological surveys have also painted an almost unremittingly dismal picture of the fate of Romany people in the contexts of employment, education and health. These two streams of data-gathering from Human Rights observers and social scientists offer alternative models of the source of the plight of the Roma and divergent solutions. Curiously, however, both apply metaphors drawn from Western societies and, more specifically, North American folk discourse. Thus in modelling postcommunist deprivation, social scientists have taken over the image of an ‘underclass’, segregated from the rest of society and discriminated against in such a way that ‘those in the underclass have almost no chance of finding roles in the new division of labour or of having “normal” jobs, income, housing, social security, or access to better education for their children’ (Ladányi 2000:71). The activists, by contrast, talk of racial discrimination and evoke a ‘civil rights’ tradition drawn in large measure from 1960s North America.