Having met up with the voluntary sector – she describes NGOs as an important partner to reduce poverty and social exclusion – Dr Bland Mintoff is becoming well informed of Malta’s situation where poverty and social exclusion are concerned.
She does not hold back in declaring that poverty has reached an “alarming” rate.
“We are far too embedded in a world engulfed with consumerism and individualism where values are being sidelined; at times we are forgetting that certain people out there are struggling,” she says.
She continues: “The importance of meeting and hearing out the concerns of people who as things are don’t stand a chance of leading a decent life is vital,” she adds, describing it as a bid to get in touch with reality.
“We are half way through our public consultation meetings, trying to base our plans on reality and understand the existing challenges and conditions of a great number of people.
“The meetings form part of our government’s holistic plan to emerge with a national strategic framework on poverty and social exclusion.
“There’s no doubt that information exchanges and dialogue will help give a clearer picture of the situation,” according to Dr Bland Mintoff, emphasising that the government will not base its policies on simply “book reading”.
Asked what is contributing to the growing trend in poverty risk and social exclusion, Dr Bland Mintoff says: “Despite having a free health and education service and a string of social benefits, it doesn’t solve the problem.”
To put it mildly, she claims that some of the free services have become inefficient, referring to out-of-stock medicines and the long list of patients waiting to be operated on, admitting that the health care problem is still there.
But why does Dr Bland Mintoff point fingers at Malta’s health system for instance?
“I have bumped into many people from the first and second districts; they have been in pain for years awaiting medical intervention. And this is why we are looking at the quality of life of people in a holistic manner, identifying the big differences in opportunities that exist and capabilities of these people.
“You and I have probably got all the education and resources possible and can ride any wave, large or small, such as losing our job or being involved in an accident and emerging to a certain extent ‘unharmed’ in the end.
“We can immediately turn to private care without having to wait for months on end, or can compile a good CV and find ourselves a decent job.
“But for others, it’s not as easy a task. We are dealing with multiple deprivation, where one is faced with a problem, such as being unwell, leading to a domino effect, such as facing a long-term out-of-work situation simply because an individual cannot turn to private care and rid himself/herself of a situation.”
Turning to child poverty, she says that one in four children under the age of 18 is at risk of poverty or social exclusion, a staggering 25.8% in total.
“This is a high priority issue for all of us because it’s our future, coupled with the fact that it’s natural that children should have access to a quality life.”
Asked if Maltese families are struggling to meet even their most basic needs despite Malta having fared well throughout the global financial crisis, she says: “The EU defines people at risk of poverty as those living in a household with an equivalised disposable income below the risk-of-poverty threshold, which is set at 60 per cent of the median national equivalised disposable income.
“If one were to look at a number of surveys conducted over the years, based on a standard budget approach, meaning how much one needs to lead a decent life in terms of finances, it emerges that there’s a great deal of poverty in Malta.
“Currently official figures show that there’s a mix of both relative and actual poverty, a shocking amount totalling 88,000 people.”
She explains that being deprived of a decent meal every few days or the inability to pay a 450-euro bill or more fall under the material deprivation bracket.
“Both Eurostat and NSO statistics show that there’s little social mobility in Malta: low intensity of work, low pay, and segmentation of the labour market, which is not healthy since this means that there’s a growing poverty trap.”
She points out that the latest Social Europe Report shows that Malta has one of the highest rates, among other EU countries, of people falling into the poverty trap and the lowest rate of those coming out of it, which brings about more “disparity”.
Asked if she feels poor people are stigmatised and socially excluded, she replies in the affirmative.
“Material deprivation is what leads to social exclusion, also known as marginalisation.
“I know of mothers who want the best for their children, like every mother would want for her child, but fear being excluded simply because they are unable to provide branded clothing for their children or because they simply hail from the south. This not only exacerbates the problem but may also lead to isolation.”
Asked what makes this government’s plan to end poverty so different from past efforts, she is quick to reply: “This is the first time that a framework strategy of this sort is being put into place with the aim of targeting poverty and social exclusion.
“We are working towards a holistic and inter-ministerial approach, adding that past governments have not tackled the problem so intensely.”
So what type of resources do people in poverty have available to them in Malta?
“I think the growth in the voluntary sector is positive; NGOs are addressing the issues of vulnerable people as best they can and we hope networking between the government, NGOs, local councils and the parish church will be enhanced so that these pockets of destitution will be served better.
How much of the poverty that Dr Bland Mintoff has witnessed is situational and how much is generational (family history)?
“People write their PhD’s to answer such a question,” she says, sporting a smile, “however I met with people who come from the first and second districts who have done really well for themselves, irrelevant of their family history.
“If you have the opportunity coupled with the right community support, you can break the intergenerational cycle.”
Asked whether she has been involved in other strategic plans in the past related to social exclusion and poverty, she says: “I have worked with disadvantaged people, at risk of dropping out of school mainly.
“If one were to adopt the model based on cooperation, no discrimination, giving empowerment and offering very dedicated services, I don’t see why the strategy to reduce poverty and social exclusion shouldn’t make a difference in people’s lives.
She says those seeking help must be given a lot of decision-making power, creating an environment where at the end of the day they can help themselves.
What one thing could I do as an individual to help eliminate poverty? I ask Dr Bland Mintoff.
“Volunteering is good while sharing some ideas or engaging in social enterprise are useful tips.
“Many young people today are looking for meaningful work and we want to partner with people like that.
“Through the consultation meetings, I feel the government is generating a sense of community awareness.”
Do you feel that a 16% increase in poverty, from 76,000 people in 2006 to 88,000 in 2011, is a significant amount, that of three per cent a year?
“It’s alarming to say the least,” she says, adding that one cannot understand the rise in poverty without realising that the rich have got richer and the poor have become poorer, suggesting that the middle class may be eventually phased out.
“Watch it,” she jokes.
Can poverty take place when one lives beyond one’s means, I ask Dr Bland Mintoff?
“We all could do with some form of budget, however a far more worrying factor is that people are coming up with scams, such as inducing others to spend more than one would in a rational moment.”
She mainly refers to contractual terms and conditions hardly made available, for instance pointing out that young people caught at a vulnerable moment can be conned into thinking they have unlimited mobile calls after they are promised a free mobile phone delivered to their door, where terms and conditions are hardly read during vulnerable moments.
Not all that glitters is gold, she says, adding that everyone should be able to take an informed decision and information made available to consumers.
“And this applies in the case of vulnerable people mostly, such as the elderly.”
Is it a question of income shortage which can be short-term or is it real poverty?
“There’s no doubt that the cost of living has gone up and income for many people down, leading to consistent poverty. One can witness this trap for pensioners as well, which leads to long-term hardship.”
List of public consultation meetings still to take place
Misrah Mattia Preti, Valletta
Triq il-Korazza, Qawra
Triq ix-Xatt, Gzira
The meetings start at 6.30pm.