It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

In Greece, three years of austerity measures imposed by the country's international lenders are taking their toll. Thousands of businesses have shut down, unemployment is close to 27 percent and rising, and the country's safety net of welfare benefits has been weakened.

As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, all this is tearing apart the social fabric of Greek life.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Nowhere are cutbacks more visible and painful than in health care. It's no longer universal. A year after losing a job, a worker loses all benefits.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: Close to an abandoned U.S. Air Force base outside of Athens, we find the Hellenikon Metropolitan Social Clinic. Olga Baklatzi is one of the many volunteers at what they call the underground clinic, created 13 months ago to serve those no longer covered by health insurance.

She describes the kind of people who come here.

OLGA BAKLATZI: Middle class, simple people, working people, they just lost their jobs. You know, builders, people who work in shops. I mean, they are well-dressed. They're not scruffy or dirty.

POGGIOLI: Medicines are donated families of patients who don't need them anymore and by pharmacies. In just over a year, 4,500 patients have been visited at this clinic providing care from dental to cancer.

A well-dressed woman waits in line at the reception desk. She agrees to speak but prefers not to give her name for reasons of privacy.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: Fifty-six-years-old, she's come for free medicines for her breast cancer. She's had no coverage since her family recording company went bankrupt in 2008. She's angry. Her three grown-up children have university degrees, speak several languages and have all lost their jobs. She holds back tears. Her bitterness, she says, is the cause of her cancer.

One of the founders of the underground clinic is cardiologist Giorgios Vichas. With three years of austerity cuts, he says, life expectancy is dropping, while infant mortality has grown by four percent - shocking statistics in peacetime in the Western world.

The clinic, Vichas says, offers more than doctors and medicines.

DR. GIORGIOS VICHAS: (Through Translator) We also give them back the hope and dignity that's been taken away from them.

POGGIOLI: Economic shock therapy has led to a 30 percent loss of household income. A thousand people lose their jobs every day, many still employed have not been paid in months, and hundreds of thousands of families have no income or benefits whatsoever. One third of the population lives below the poverty line.

Some better-off Greeks, in a sign of solidarity, leave packaged food near trash bins to spare their more unfortunate neighbors the humiliation of scavenging. Lines at soup kitchens get longer.


POGGIOLI: It is lunchtime and this large room in a church-owned building is packed with people reciting grace. This Athens soup kitchen is a 10-minute walk from the posh hotels in Syntagma Square.

Xenia Papastavrou runs the NGO Borume. She says some people have come from afar to pick up meals.

XENIA PAPASTAVROU: Maybe the kids don't even know their mother is going to the soup kitchen and they think their mother is cooking at home.

POGGIOLI: Over the last year, Borume, which means We Can, has matched up 600 soup kitchens with food donors - hotels, restaurants and bakeries. It also works with 110 municipalities to provide food for public schools where more and more children are arriving hungry.

Another sign of plummeting living standards is the growing number of people unable to pay rising taxes and utility bills. With arrears to the state growing by the billions of euros and the deepening recession, all the best-laid plans to put the Greek economy back on track are at risk. Analysts fear an unending cycle of more cutbacks and tax hikes and wonder how much more can Greeks endure?

Vassilis Kodakis is 32 years old and has a degree in civil engineering. He lost his job as a construction company foreman and now works as a barista at whatever cafe he can find work. He feels lucky to have job, even with no benefits. He keeps quiet and doesn't complain. He knows hundreds are waiting in line eager to take his job.

VASSILIS KODAKIS: If you want to have family now, you are going to think about it twice. Come on, no. What dreams? No dreams. You have to keep low profile. I'm going day by day.

POGGIOLI: Vassilis is proud of his girlfriend, Flora Chrysou, a biologist and rock singer. He says the lyrics of her latest protest song reflect the frustration of Greece's younger generation.


FLORA CHRYSOU: (Singing in foreign language)

KODAKIS: We have no oxygen in the air. She will try to find a different sky and she will try to find a different sun.

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Athens.

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