The Malta Independent 22 February 2020, Saturday

Are Malta’s priorities right? 35,692 can’t afford heating, but only 9,514 can’t afford a car

Albert Galea Tuesday, 20 August 2019, 10:48 Last update: about 7 months ago

Recent statistics released as part of the EU-SILC exercise revealed that while 35,692 households cannot afford to keep their home adequately warm during winter, only 9,514 households cannot afford a car – statistics which beg the question; are the priorities of the Maltese people in the wrong place?

Speaking to The Malta Independent, sociologist Michael Briguglio said that the answer to such a question is as much down to Malta’s society being warped, as it is down to there not being many feasible alternatives to the car.

The European Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC) is an annual survey carried out by the National Statistics Office which takes into account various indicators to reach conclusions on poverty and material deprivation.

To ascertain how many people are in a situation of material deprivation or severe material deprivation, households are asked whether they can afford certain things ranging from an annual week-long holiday, to unexpected financial expenses, to heating their homes adequately in winter.

While the expense of an annual week-long holiday is a particularly high expense – reflected in the fact that 142,871 persons (30.6%) said that they cannot afford it – other points are less expensive. 

In the case of two categories in particular, 35,692 said that their household cannot afford to keep the home adequately warm in winter while 26,688 said that their household cannot afford a meal with meat, chicken, fish, or a vegetarian equivalent every second day. Meanwhile however, only 9,514 people reported that their household could not afford a car.

The discrepancy between these categories – both in terms of the number of persons who cannot afford them, and in the financial burden that they generate on the family budget – is substantial.

Asked about the discrepancy, Briguglio pinned the matter largely down to two elements.  Firstly, he said, Malta is a “car-addicted society” and said that the car in and of itself is now an inherent part of our culture and is even a sort of identity for some people.

However, he noted, there is another facet to take into consideration when analysing this matter. He said that many people have no feasible alternative for a car for various activities, hence meaning that the car is seen by many Maltese as an essential commodity to the point that they may be ready to prioritise a loan on a car or a car’s upkeep over heating the household during winter.

The very fact that the car holds such a part of some people’s identity and culture means that one cannot say that car use would disappear if Malta had the best public transport in the world, he noted.  However, he said, policy makers need to clarify whether their policies are actually making them even more dependent on cars.  Briguglio pointed out that the government’s policies today seem to be doing that.

Finance Minister Edward Scicluna had even said this in a press conference earlier this month, saying that the widening of roads is “probably” encouraging private care use, “but has also encouraged public transport.”

Briguglio said that if there is a more reliable public transport system along with other modes of transport such as cycling and walking being prioritised then it could mean that people will spend less money on cars and more on other essential things.

“Our policies are simply accepting the fact that cars are on the increase, widening roads, and putting forward policies which simply seem to satisfy the appetite of the purchase of cars, whereas in reality we should be looking at sustainable policies”, he lamented.

He criticised the PN spokesperson for Transport MP Toni Bezzina for his statement where he said that the government will soon attempt to limit car licenses by either withdrawing them from people or capping the number of cars on Malta’s roads, saying that attempts should not be made to alarm people with such things, but to go forward with sustainable alternatives.

He said that this statement, along with the reply of the government had proven that the “car is king”.

He said that what is also very worrying in these figures as a whole is that they show that while the economy is growing, a point on which he praised the government, the social and environmental factors that pertain to sustainability are not progressing as well as the economy is, noting that Malta’s minimum wage rise is one of the lowest in Europe while the price of essential items continues to rise.

Finally, he noted that surveys such as the EU-SILC as carried out by the NSO should be coupled with qualitative research carried out by sociologists, anthropologists, or other professionals so to ascertain the reasons behind such statistical patterns.

Qualitative research and going beyond the figures in the survey would help understand the everyday lifestyle of persons and to help ascertain why they are choosing to spend money on one thing as opposed to another.


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