The FUA of Sfântu Gheorghe includes the city of Sfântu Gheorghe (the “city”), as well as two villages - Chilieni and Coseni. Sfântu Gheorghe has an approximate size of 73 km2 and is located in the central part of Romania, in the historical region called Transylvania and ethno-cultural region of Székelyföld/Szekely Land, and is the capital city of Covasna’ county. According to the National Institute of Statistics, the municipality’s population is 64,428 inhabitants (as of 1st of January 2018), with ca.77% of Hungarian speakers and ~22% of Romanian speakers.
Main challenges, trends and policies
The education system in Romania is highly centralized, which makes it difficult - or even impossible - to make decisions at the local level. Even if at the national level measures have been taken to eliminate the segregation of pupils in schools, there is still the label of 'good school' and 'bad school'. The 'good' schools in Sfântu Gheorghe are the ones in the city center, usually attended by elite students, with very good school performance. The 'bad' schools are those located in the city outskirts and mainly attended by Roma pupils. Among other major challenges in the community there are: (1) high drop-out rates among children from vulnerable groups, (2) high rate of functional illiteracy and (3) poor results of Hungarian pupils in learning Romanian language.
The problem of young NEETs is as big in the FUA Sfântu Gheorghe as in the whole country.. In order to understand more clearly their situation, a micro-social understanding is needed. The economic crisis of 2008 affected the labour market to a lesser extent than the closure of factories before the 2000s. As a general conclusion, there are vacant jobs in the locality, but they are not very attractive for young people. It should also be pointed out that (mainly) Roma youth face discrimination which often makes them refuse to look for a job locally and search for a better life abroad, in Western Europe. The COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult to go abroad for work and significantly affected those who worked seasonally or in the hospitality industry. At the local level there are various retraining programs, but the absorption of pupils on the labour market remains poor.
The living conditions of citizens in FUA Sfântu Gheorghe did not change for 30 years. Most young people live in private apartments or houses or with other family members. The situation of overcrowded housing or multigenerational housing is relatively common. There are two programs helping young people purchase a house: one at the national level - through which over 100 apartments were built - and one at the local level "Come home!". The 'Come Home' program was created in 2009 and is an example of innovative local policy.
The main problem of the social protection system is the exaggerated bureaucracy and the shortage of staff. The research shows that the population that needs the most social assistance services does not know their rights and does not know where and how to ask for help. Both at national level and in FUA Sfantu Gheorghe, social benefits have a very limited impact on poverty reduction. Family benefits have the strongest effect on the poverty rate, followed by sickness and disability benefits. Unemployment benefits have a very limited effect on the incidence and depth of poverty, possibly due to short coverage and short duration. Consequently, the power of the tax and social security system (excluding pensions) to reduce income inequality is also limited.
Discussion and main conclusions
- The greatest challenges Sfântu Gheorghe is facing are not much different from the usual challenges of an Eastern-European small or medium city: migration of the youngsters, lack of well-paid jobs, increasing social inequality.
- The desire of the population to emigrate to Western Europe or Hungary continues since 1990 and has seen a leap with Romania's accession into the European Union. Therefore, after 2007 (but even before this period) the southern region of Transylvania, to which FUA Sfântu Gheorghe belongs, experienced one of the most accentuated migrations in Romania.
- In FUA Sfântu Gheorghe three marginal communities were identified, in which the majority of the population faces a series of socio-economic difficulties to a greater extent than the rest of the population.
- Romania (Sfantu Gheorghe is no exception) has a very high rate of material deprivation, and the youth are not an exception. Although Romania is seen as a poor country, overall, inequalities between the richest and poorest are greater than in most EU countries.
- Romania is a country of paradoxes: there is the highest risk of poverty in the EU and at the same time the state allocates very small part of GDP for social protection; the majority of the population lives in private properties (or that of another family member) and yet there is a problem of overcrowding of dwellings, accompanied by the lack of basic utilities. Another paradox is to be seen in the labor market. It is not supported by statistical data but frequently comes up in casual conversations: employers complain that there is a lack of available workforce, while many individuals cannot find a job or decide to look for a job abroad.
- The economic crisis of 2008 was often falsely associated by people with the accession to the EU. Following the EU accession in 2007, internal spatial inequalities have increased in Romania and the most affected were those who were previously in a precarious socio-economic situation.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened inequalities and significantly affected precarious groups (e.g. pupils from overcrowded homes), but it is too early to have a clear overview of the long-term effects.
Selected key aspects characterizing the local context in Sfantu Gheorghe include a limited room of maneuver for local governments and other local actors, as most policies are decided on the national level; recognition for the importance of youth participation in policy co-creation (as evidence, the vice-mayor is 25 years old); good relationship between public authorities, private institutions and NGOs, however the details are very difficult to establish outside of a participative (ethnographic) research