Possibilities for combating poverty in Europe
The EU has undertaken to reduce the number of people living in poverty by 20 million by 2020. What is the state of play today?
Official statistics on the evolution of poverty in Europe are far from reassuring. For many years rates of risk of poverty or social exclusion kept on rising, but in 2015 the EU was able to record a fall back to 2008 levels. In total Europe holds 119 million people at risk of poverty or social exclusion, and that still represents nearly a quarter of its population. The timid reversal of the trend, far from lulling us, should be spurring us to act with greater conviction against poverty. All the more so because poverty is becoming more and more entrenched and increasingly severe, especially where young people (under 25 years old) are concerned.
Naturally, you cannot base your understanding of the breadth and depth of poverty entirely on statistics. A great many people have no idea of what life is like for these people or of what they think.
How can it happen that 25% of Europeans are at risk of poverty while European countries have the world’s most advanced social security systems?
Probably the answer to that lies in the fact that even the best system still relies upon the actions and interactions of human beings. The lack of trust between population groups, the mutual lack of understanding, prejudices too, represent obstacles that are underestimated. Social cohesion is not just a secondary objective, it is crucial. For example, when a person living in a caravan parked on a plot of land that lies on the border between two communes is unable to register his official place of residence in either of these communes, that problem cannot be entirely explained away by pointing to loopholes in the regulations. Another problem is discrimination, which is usually indirect: the imposition of burdensome and dissuasive procedures which result in high rates of non-access to welfare and allowances.
Does having a job keep you out of poverty?
Yes and no, because it’s not just the wage level that counts: if a job is of good quality, it also provides inclusion in a system of social protection and an enrichment of the worker’s social network. However, there are also jobs that impoverish: jobs in the black market sector or of lower status, precariously part–time, call centres, working solitary tasks for very non-standard working hours, or working in an atmosphere of competition and suspicion.
The desire to work, to be useful to others, is an instinct far stronger than people realise. A lot of people who are jobless for a long time have lost any hope of getting back into work, and extremely rare are the people who actually enjoy being on the dole.
The European Union is going to be playing a major role in the transition towards a ‘zero carbon’ economy, that of creating new business activities and new jobs. Couldn’t we make the effort to plan such new businesses and jobs to be fully accessible to people who have been in long-term unemployment and above all for young people who find themselves in the greatest insecurity?
What can the EU do for the most vulnerable people?
Not a lot, as far as social policy is concerned: member countries insisted on retaining total control in this domain. For measures affecting employment, the EU has somewhat greater powers. However, we can see that Recommendations, which are not binding, may be followed in a majority of countries. Take, for example, the “Youth Guarantee” Recommendation. Obviously, the presence of financial support from the European Structural Funds has also provided an incentive for Member State initiatives.
In 2014, ATD Fourth World organised a European People’s University in partnership with the European Parliament’s Intergroup on ‘Extreme poverty and human rights’. This project, linking people living in poverty, people working with NGOs and people connected with the European institutions, has produced 14 proposals for Europe in a dozen different domains.
There you will see that the expectations are high, and go even further than the possibilities for manoeuvre contained in the current Treaties. Yet what we have found out in practice is that, very often, if you really take into account the ways that people affected by poverty live and think, you cannot stop that from affecting the existing framework. On 20 December, in the European Economic and Social Committee we are going to deepen our proposals on guaranteeing a decent minimum wage and the right to legal residence in a territory.
Interviewed by Johanna Touzel
Translated from the original text in French
The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Office.