Minimum income programs in Europe: who gets to live in dignity?
On 6 April 2016, ATD Fourth World activists from Flanders (a region in Belgium) and Ireland spoke at a meeting at the European Parliament committee on “Extreme Poverty and Human Rights”. The meeting, attended by Members of European Parliament (MEPs) from all political groups, addressed the question of a guaranteed minimum income. The activists talked about their real-life experiences and gave their point of view on the issues discussed. These included who is eligible to receive a minimum income in countries that provide one and how people in poverty manage in countries that do not. The discussion also addressed the question of whether countries should establish a minimum income available to everyone regardless of their resources.
Income disparity across the European Union
Everyone who cannot find a job and who does not have other means of support should be eligible for a minimum income, said Fintan Farrell, Acting Director of the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN) and Project Manager of the European Minimum Income Network (EMIN). Mr. Farrell suggested that such income benefits should not be solely for people living in poverty. However, many EU income programs do have eligibility requirements such as providing proof that the recipient is looking for work. These requirements can prevent people who qualify for benefits from receiving them. Mr. Farrell cited a 2014 EMIN report showing how obstacles to receiving benefits block eligible recipients from accessing these programs.
Mr. Farrell also expressed concern about the great disparities among minimum income programs in 26 EU countries (two member states, Italy and Greece, have no minimum income program). He called on the EU to develop a common methodology, based on the cost of the goods and services in each country, to determine a reasonable level of household income needed for a family to live in dignity.
“The poor shouldn’t be invisible, they should be up front in efforts to access their own rights” said Carla Bellazzecca, an ATD Fourth World activist from Italy, as she described what it is like to live in a country without a minimum income program. The Italian government provides only public housing, but does nothing about problems like social discrimination, violence, illiteracy, and drugs. There are added costs for the government, Ms. Bellazzecca pointed out, when a large percentage of the population lives in the shadows. These include delinquency, workers paid under the table, and health problems the government pays for in the end. She called on the EU to “put pressure on Italy and Greece, the two countries that have not yet done so, to establish a minimum income benefit in order to guarantee some level of dignity for citizens who live in poverty”.
A group of ATD Fourth World activists from Ireland also addressed the meeting, describing the problems homeless people face, particularly in Dublin, when applying for the country’s basic social welfare allowance, as well as for housing and health care programs. It is also very hard, they said, to apply for Ireland’s disability benefit programs. While people are, in theory, entitled to these programs, an applicant must provide many documents and frequently is required to visit the benefits office many times in the course of applying for them.
Options for the future
Peter Verhaeghe, Policy and Advocacy Officer at Caritas Europa, discussed the situation in Spain. Even before the 2007 economic crisis, while the country was experiencing economic growth and increased job creation, poverty was already on the rise and half of the country’s jobs were temporary or unstable. Spain does not have universal child benefits or family support programs and more than 700,000 households have no income at all. Caritas Europa recommends the implementation of a minimum income program, a minimum wage that allows people to live in dignity, and the introduction of a child allowance.
In France, as in other countries, a debate has emerged about establishing a universal income program available to everyone. The rationale behind a universal guaranteed minimum income is that it would simplify the very complex French welfare system and eliminate the stigma associated with applying to receive a minimum income. Marc de Basquiat, President of the French Association for the Introduction of an Existence Income (AIRE), discussed the theoretical reasons in favour of such scheme that would simplify the current system. According to his calculations, with the exception of single people, those receiving both the guaranteed minimum income and the housing benefit would be better off.
Marc Beernaert, an activist from ATD Fourth World Belgium, shared ideas discussed at a 2015 Flemish People’s University where participants discussed the question of a universal basic income. There were concerns regarding the potential loss of certain benefits such as public housing and scholarships; family, social, housing and transportation benefits; and more targeted benefits such as healthcare for homeless people. Participants worried that a universal income would drive up rents, especially in the context of a housing shortage. On the positive side, Mr. Beernaert noted the advantage of increased flexibility to work part-time, and to care for children and the sick or elderly. In addition, a minimum income would allow citizens to help one another more easily, at no cost to the government.
“It is important that we help one another more, for free, without paying. We can help one another to move instead of paying a moving company or renting a lorry. We can help one another with ironing, or working in friends’ or neighbours’ gardens. This contributes to lowering the cost of living.”
Radek Maly, head of the social affairs unit of the European Commission’s employment department, echoed the sentiments expressed by President Juncker earlier in the meeting regarding the importance of these social policy questions. He emphasized the importance of striving for the best possible outcomes in the current context of increasing poverty and unemployment, especially long-term unemployment. Additional challenging structural economic changes include the expanding collaborative economy, the decrease in “classic” employment contracts, and the increase in self-employment. However, said Mr. Maly, we must remember that the Commission has almost no capacity to make policy changes in the area of guaranteed minimum income programs. European Union institutions can only encourage cooperation and promote good practices. However, Radek Maly assured the audience, the Commission is following existing experiments in universal income programs.
During the discussion with the public, Idès Nicaise, professor at the University of Leuven, reiterated the importance of investing in unemployed people to enable them to be mobile, to receive training, and to be a part of society. He also urged participants to address the high levels of non-coverage of minimum income programs.
MEPs from the committee stated that they would continue to monitor the issue of minimum income.