The Roma may be just what Europe needs to recover

The Roma constitute the largest ethnic minority in Europe. While many think the continent would be better off without them, the Roma have lived in Europe for more than 1,500 years, and represent one of Europe’s last, great hopes.

But currently, the Roma are among the continent’s most underserved communities. And like Europe’s Jews, and newcomers from Africa and the Middle East, they’re finding themselves caught up in a resurgence of racism and xenophobia.

The unemployment rate for Roma in Bulgaria was 59% in 2010, and 50% in Romania according to a seminal World Bank report, while average unemployment in Bulgaria was 11.6%, and 7.3% in Romania in 2013.

Further south, the average income for Albanian Roma families that year was €68 a month ($86), compared to €174.50 for non-Roma households.

These disparities are largely attributable to one thing: education. The low enrollment of Roma children and their institutional disenfranchisement is highly problematic for European economies, which are beginning to feel the effects of rapidly aging workforces. As European populations fail to produce enough children to replenish outgoing working-age generations, conditions will only get worse.

Social exclusion means only 29% of 16-year-old Romanian Roma boys are still in school, and only 18% of same-age girls. The number obtaining university educations across Europe is negligible at best.

Some Roma parents opt to keep their children at home, depriving them of a formal education, due to a deeply rooted communitarian distrust of government policies. And who could blame them? Apart from centuries of government-sanctioned discrimination, even when Roma children are formally enrolled at public institutions, they are “still routinely put at a disadvantage because of their placement in either segregated schools or schools for children with learning disabilities,” reports Jacy Meyer for the New York Times in 2013.

In the Czech Republic, which has an internationally recognized public education system, “a disproportionate number of Roma are placed in what are called ‘practical schools,’ meaning institutions that use a simplified curriculum for children who have mild mental disabilities or who need remedial training,” Meyer explains. “In a parallel problem, others are segregated into Roma-only schools that keep them isolated from the mainstream education system.” In 2010, of those Czech Roma children with access to schooling, one-third were enrolled in practical schools.

If contemporary attitudes sustain, those which keep Roma at the margins of society, Bulgaria will be a country without hope. A sizable portion of European Roma families are welfare-dependent—needless to say, a growing Roma population alongside a diminishing formal Bulgarian workforce is a recipe for economic disaster.

Bulgaria will be, in effect, a Roma country by the middle of this century. By 2050, the population of ethnic Bulgarians is expected to shrink to 800,000, while the number of Bulgarian Roma is expected to crest 3.5 million. A 2010 projection indicated that 20% of Hungary’s population and 40% of its workforce will consist of Roma by the same year.

Europe needs Roma babies—but uneducated children will merely pick up where their parents left off: impoverished, socially excluded, and operating largely in informal economic sectors; a combination which costs Serbia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Romania a combined €5.7 billion annually in economic and productivity losses.

“Better educated Roma can expect much higher earnings,” the World Bank reports. “Compared to Roma with primary education, Roma who complete secondary education can expected to earn 83% more in Bulgaria, 110% more in the Czech Republic 144% more in Romania, and 52% more in Serbia.” The World Bank predicts annual fiscal gains from “bridging the employment gap” are “much higher than the total cost of investing in public education for all Roma children; by a factor of 7.7 for Bulgaria, 7.4 times for the Czech Republic, 2.4 times in Romania, and 3.3 times in Serbia.”

If European governments effectively invest in Roma education, they will be cultivating a replacement workforce that can help bear the coming load of rising pensions, health care costs, and other national disbursements associated with aging populations.

But it’s not a possibility without active support in Europe’s capitals. From Brussels to Bucharest, right-wing populist ideologues have rediscovered a favorite scapegoat. They demonize the Roma like medieval Europeans and 19th century fascists once did: “gypsies” don’t want to work, they’re welfare freeloaders, thieves, and palm-reading charlatans. Public education programs aimed at debunking the “gypsy mystique” among the youngest Europeans may reverse these transgenerational misconceptions.

Most European countries have compulsory education laws requiring kids aged 6-17 to enroll full-time. Enforcing these laws among Roma communities may work in the short term, but will do little to ameliorate social relations with European societies at large.

Including the rich history and cultural traditions of European Roma in social-studies curricula across the continent, and training Roma teachers, may be the triple-pronged approach governments need to resolve the education and employment gap. Such programs would educate non-Roma about their neighbors and countrymen, expunging harmful stereotypes, whilst welcoming Roma families into the system of social advancement.

You can follow Jake on Twitter at @JakeFlanagin. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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