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Unemployment: How does Spain cope?

Part I: Families provide the critical safety net.

Spain indignados puerta del solEnlarge
Spain's "indignant" protesters demostrate in Madrid's Puerta del Sol on November 19, 2011 against spending cuts, high unemployment and political corruption. Spain's so-called 'indignant' protest movement was born when thousands of people set up camp in Madrid's Puerta del Sol square ahead of May 22 municipal elections. (Christina Quicler/AFP/Getty Images)

MADRID, Spain — It’s early Saturday night in the Spanish capital, and people in this feverish, over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived city are on the move.

In the city's beating heart, Puerta del Sol, and the avenues, streets and lanes leading to it, life is being lived exuberantly.

On the surface it is impossible to detect the terrible fact of Spanish life: a 22.8 percent unemployment rate — more than double the European Union average. Almost 46 percent of under-25s not in higher education lack a job. No part of the country is immune to the crisis. Even the capital's unemployment rate is in double digits.

Yet, to an untrained eye, the only sign of the jobs crisis engulfing Spain is the good natured remnants of the "indignados," standing around the square chatting with well-wishers. These young Spaniards were the first to say “enough,” inspiring the Occupy movement.

Up Calle Carretas, in the Hotel Madrid, is an abandoned building recently squatted by indignados. For one hour each evening, ordinary Spaniards are invited in to see just what the heck goes on inside the squat.

This Saturday night, middle class folks, sympathetic to the cause, are walking the corridors. It's like time traveling back to San Francisco circa 1968. The corridors are lined with cheaply produced posters urging non-violent change. People with long hair and beards entertain one another with acoustic guitars.

It is impossible to imagine other euro zone countries like France with so many people out of work remaining so calm. Greece, for all its troubles does not have an unemployment rate like Spain's and Athens seems to erupt once a week in violence.

As for what the US would be like with an official unemployment rate of 22.8 percent, just consider the state of anxiety and simmering anger in America today with its official unemployment rate of 8.6 percent (or 15.6 percent on the Bureau of Labor Statistics' broader measurement, U6, which counts underemployed, discouraged, and marginally attached members of the work force). Now think of those feelings with an unemployment rate two and a half times larger.

Frightening, isn't it?

Yet the Spanish seem to be managing. The reason isn't government policies to help the unemployed, although they do exist. But interviews in the streets and barrios of Madrid show that four key areas of Spanish society keep the country together, family, the Catholic Church, the black economy and something the Spanish call "aguantar."

There may be a lesson in Spanish society for the US which is entering an era of prolonged high unemployment.

More from GlobalPost: Spain is back in recession


One of the visitors to the Hotel Madrid is a librarian named Maria. When a reporter expresses surprise about the calmness of Spain in the face of its jobs catastrophe, she explains the reason Spain remains calm can be summarized in a single word, "Family." Governments come and go but, Maria explains, "You have your family for your whole life. If you can only earn 600 euros a month your family will help you." The reasons for this reliance on family lie in the way Spanish society has evolved through its tortured history.

"For centuries it was King, church and aristocrats, the rest of the people were poor," Maria says. "Deep in our history is an attitude that nothing you do matters." The class structure was impermeable. You were born into your station and stayed there. "They live their lives, we live ours." So the family, not the state, is where you turn for help.

Around the capital, at every level of society it's easy to hear stories that confirm the librarian's analysis.

In Plaza Lavapies, a small urban triangle with a tiny playground to match, Paloma Pinedo is pushing her six month old son in a stroller. She is one of the few native-born Spanish people in the square. Across the way, some middle-aged immigrants from Latin America are passing time with a boom box playing Latin rhythms. By the inevitable Western Union/internet office some men from sub-Saharan Africa are hanging around.

Pinedo is unemployed, and has been for seven years. She explains she used to work as a waitress but then married a man from Morocco who insisted she stay at home. They had three children before the Moroccan disappeared. Her new