I usually pick up the Metro paper on the way to work in the morning, and last Friday’s edition had the front page headline: Bills consume an ever greater amount. The article went on to say that the relative proportion of the cost of paying for gas, electricity and water in relation to earnings, has been climbing for the past ten years. It is presently reckoned to be 25% of the total family income. Those who have retired are able to pay for only half the amount of gas from their pensions that they could in 2003.
Having both a parent and children living in England, I am easily able to make comparisons – not only of the actual costs of these, but also of the amounts relative to people’s incomes, both here and there. The uncomfortable reality is that prices of gas and electricity are now at least as high as in Britain, with fuel prices almost on a par – and here I am speaking of the actual price in £ or Huf, and not the percentage of earnings. Postal charges are in many cases more than in the UK, while BKV is not far behind. Thus it is, that although some Hungarians have seen an astronomical rise in their fortunes, with all the attendant conveniences and luxuries that were (twenty-five years ago) unavailable at any price, the majority are struggling to manage their basic monthly expenditures – never mind new clothes, cars or holidays.
When we arrived in Budapest in 1982, our monthly state wage – alongside everyone else's – was 3,000 forints. Our unlimited travel on BKV was exactly 110 fts. (this was a ‘bus’ pass – more expensive than the ‘tram’ pass, as petrol was more than electricity). Gas and electric bills together totalled about 200-300 forints, while water was free. Rent for a state-owned flat was also a few hundred forints. For a couple with a combined income of 6,000 forints, these outgoings were extremely modest, leaving several thousand forints for non-essential ‘luxuries’ like opera and cinema tickets (10 to 20 forints) LP records (70 forints), a meal out or a taxi ride home (7.50 forints a kilometre). Meanwhile, the staggering cost of even the most unglamorous car (a Skoda, Lada or Wartburg) required years of saving – plenty of time for that, as the waiting list even for a mud-brown Trabi was also several years! Colour televisions, hi-fis and other electrical gadgets were also prohibitively expensive – even when they were available. Foreign holidays were, for the most part, limited to East Germany, Poland or Bulgaria, whilst most people made the most of the Balaton. However, summer camps for children were affordable by all, and very heavily-subsidised holidays were available to everyone through their places of work, which owned holiday homes in resorts all over Hungary.
As I finished the article in the Metro, I wondered how many people are now in essentially the same position as in the 80s: unable to afford a car or a holiday, (though they are now quite probably in possession of a flat-screen TV). Yet in the ‘bad old days’ Hungarians lost not a moment’s sleep over the possibility of losing their jobs or their incomes, being turned out of their flats, or having their gas or electricity switched off due to being unable to afford the bills.
It would seem that those things which were considered absolute basics in the past, have become veritable luxuries of present-day living.