The Malta Independent 22 August 2019, Thursday

Increase in milk prices affects those on the poverty line - Anti-Poverty Forum

Rebekah Cilia Monday, 29 July 2019, 11:04 Last update: about 23 days ago

There are several people, despite being in employment, that find it hard to make ends meet till the end of the month, André Bonello, Head of Community Outreach within Caritas Malta and presently the Secretary of the Anti-Poverty Forum said.

For this reason, even small increases in food prices, like the recent increase in milk price of 11c affects people living on the poverty line. Poverty can affect anyone, Bonello explained, however, those most likely to live in poverty are women, single parents and also the elderly.

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In an interview with The Malta Independent, Bonello said that Malta has set a target to reduce the number of individuals at risk of poverty or social exclusion. The economy has also improved, he said, nothing that in 2018 Malta witnessed a 6.6 percent increase in its economic growth, more than double the 1.9 percent average rate of growth recorded by the EU-28. Despite this, it does not mean poverty is not present among the Maltese.

More initiatives must be taken seriously such as active inclusion, stronger empowerment towards vulnerable groups to become more dependent, and encouraging those who may be disadvantaged to engage and remain in the labour market, or to take up education and training to widen their possibilities for their future, Bonello said.

The recent economic performance, mainly due to the pillars of tourism, gaming and finance the economic outlook for the coming years is expected to remain positive, Bonello said. However, these are not sectors that everyone is involved in, and this could contribute to widening the income distribution.

Malta also has a high rate of early school leavers, Bonello explained, adding that this could result in young people getting jobs that are not well paid. Whilst the wage would suffice for a while, once responsibilities kick in, they could end up living on the poverty line.

Who are the people who are most at risk of living in poverty?

In terms of gender, women are mostly affected, and also single parents. Although advances are being made with regards to the gender pay gap, this is still a reality. Domestic violence is also a factor, although it could be that men do not speak out as much as women do. Elderly women are also more at risk of living in poverty because of the culture that women did not use to go out to work. If their husband leaves or passes away some end up with very low pensions. Although often these people are homeowners, they are still affected by rising rent prices. Their children could be facing difficulties paying rent, and being the close-knit families we are in Malta, they often help them out. They end up coming to organisations such as Caritas to ask for food and they humbly admit that their children needed the money to pay rent, even though they were left with none.

What is defined as poverty?

Being poor is not being able to live adequately in any given society.  Poverty can also mean homelessness or close to homelessness, like living in a non-decent environment such as a garage. Approximately 3,000 known people are living in these situations in Malta and I believe there are way more. One example could be of young people who would have left their parents’ home, perhaps because of a clash or addiction, and end up living with their partners. Some of these people live in constant anxiety, not knowing if they could end up without a roof over their heads the next day. There are also 20 percent of the population who are at risk of poverty and social exclusion. If there is a hike in food costs these people are affected since even as it is they do not make it to the end of the month.

What are some of the day-to-day problems people living in poverty face?

People living in poverty would not, for example, be able to pay their utility bills and then they would have to pay six percent interest. These people are already drowning and they have to pay over and above what is owed. Whilst schemes do exist, they would probably not know about them or even find it shameful to ask for help. Unfortunately, some would end up borrowing money through usury to pay rent and it is just a vicious circle. During this summer period, we had someone who was involved in an unfortunate accident and had a number of expenses, including rent. Due to lack of sufficient income and a great fear of become homeless, the person ended up resorting to usury. When realising the mistake done, the person asked Caritas for help. If guidance was asked before putting oneself in danger, the situation would have been way easier and less stressful to tackle. This is something we see often. 

Does the recent increase in milk prices affect such people?

The Retail Price Index indicates that food amounts to the largest upward impact on annual inflation, mainly due to higher prices (an annual rate increase of 4.24%). This is reflected also in the Minimum Essential Budget for a Decent Living, the study report issued by Caritas in 2016. Food is considered as a need. The amount of money spent on food from one low income earner compared to the amount of money spent by someone better off is approximately the same. But the percentage of expenditure on their respective income will be higher for the low income earner and lower for someone who is better off. The increase of any food prices, including milk and bread which are considered daily essentials, will add more weight on the financial burden of the low-income family.

 

You are assuming that these people work, so the problem is not unemployment. What is it?

Although there are only a few people on the minimum wage, other low-income earners earn only slightly more than the minimum wage. In Malta, it is well known that people do find jobs, but what type of employment are they in? Although unemployment rates are low, even amongst youths, the early school-leavers rate is relatively high compared to the EU average. Unfortunately, low skilled jobs have little progression and their income remains relatively the same. We need to focus more on our students and examine how to decrease early school-leavers. One of the main factors, I believe, is that education should be tailor-made form an early age. Moreover, we need to ensure that entitlement to education for sustainable development and related school subjects, such as Home Economics, are implemented comprehensively in the early years. The idea is to nurture the right attitudes and skills from a young age towards becoming responsible citizens who make informed decisions and take action to promote and safeguard personal, family and community wellbeing. 

Economic growth in Malta continues to increase but are those on the poverty line improving?

In 2019, the predicted growth is 6.2 percent, however, the pillars of the GDP in Malta are tourism, gaming, finance and, nowadays, Blockchain. But are we preparing our students for these sectors? These sectors are taken up by foreigners with high wages. These high wages have opened the doors for high rent prices for the Maltese. This has resulted in the richer becoming richer and the poorer becoming poorer, even though poverty is decreasing. Recently several shelters for those who are homeless have opened. Why are these shelters being opened n an economy that is doing well?

 

Do you think the new rent reform will help those living in poverty?

Yes, they will have an effect and the reform is a very good step forward. Although the effect might be slow at first, enforcement will educate future generations to register their properties and abide by the regulations.

Is poverty transmitted from one generation to the next?

Yes, it does happen, but poverty can be eliminated through education. Abuse in the family, drugs, exclusion could all be transmitted but those who manage to break this chain end up excelling. I was raised in a working class family with various challenges which required strong decisions to be made. Although it was not easy, I had a choice to either lose hope or to work hard and chase my dreams, one of which was to make a difference in society. Although your choices could be limited, a person has always a choice. That is why education is important, and not just formal education, but even in-formal and non-formal education.

What does the Anti-Poverty Forum do?

Caritas Malta is one of the 13 NGOs that make up the Anti-Poverty Forum. The Forum’s aim is not to help people directly but to unite in one voice to send a strong message through policies or initiatives such as conferences and activities related to social justice. Through Caritas, we directly meet with vulnerable people and see what their needs are. Research is then carried out based on people’s real experiences. Caritas Malta is present within a European platform, together with Caritas Europa, to advocate and push forward feasible suggestions through studies and reports directed to the European Commission to implement the best policies to help all those people who are in need. Caritas Malta opens its doors for hundreds of cases with the aim to be always on the side of people in need.

 

 

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