Lawrence Zammit wrote in the Times of Malta (May 20) about poverty in Malta, quite rightly pointing out the complexity of the issues concerned but also remarking about how various governments have strengthened the social safety net and the array of social benefits that are available to many households, particularly those that are vulnerable.
Putting into context some of his comments, it is worth mentioning that, over the years, the efforts to reduce poverty were mainly successful. Thus, the percentage of persons at risk of poverty or social exclusion has nowadays been reduced to around 19 per cent from its peak of over 24 per cent almost a decade ago. This statistic includes those aspects of living that relate to social poverty.
As far as material and social poverty are concerned, again, there has been a remarkable reduction in the rate, from 15.2 per cent of employed persons in 2014 to 5.4 per cent in 2020 (the years are those as published by Eurostat).
But even those who are inactive in the labour force have experienced less material and social poverty, so much so that the rate of such people has fallen from 30.8 per cent in 2014 to 16.7 per cent in 2020. Moreover, if one looks at those who are really unfortunate, the percentage of those who suffer from severe material deprivation has been reduced from 10.3 in 2014 to 3.3 in 2020.
However, we do have pockets of poverty where the improvement was less impressive or even where there have been some setbacks. Unfortunately, these situations arise and it is often the case that they do not come immediately to the attention of policymakers.
One reason is that there is normally a two-year delay in the availability of the relevant statistics, an inevitable situation of which Eurostat is very much aware.
One important aspect which we need to mention is the impact of employment on reducing poverty. The government made this one of its top priorities since 2013. We all know that people who do not work are more liable to be in poverty or at risk of poverty and this, obviously, affects adversely all the members of the households concerned.
The fight against poverty is a never-ending task
– Mark Musu
Accordingly, the government introduced the tapering of benefit schemes so that people who increase their work intensity are not cut off from the welfare net immediately as used to happen before. This was complemented by the introduction of the in-work benefit that rewards working parents who are already in employment or take up employment and is designed in a way that the more one works, the higher the benefit will be up to a certain level of income.
These two measures, coupled also with free childcare, have had a tremendous positive impact. One statistic which confirms the huge impact of the transition from social welfare dependency to employment is the record decline in the number of social assistance and unemployment beneficiaries.
Significantly, dependants on unemployment assistance sunk by 84 per cent in seven years, from 5,713 in 2014 to 933 in 2021, while the number of social assistance beneficiaries dropped from a high of nearly 14,000 in 2014 to 4,444 in 2021. And these numbers are still going down even in 2022.
The Ministry for Social Policy and Children’s Rights as well as its departments and agencies are actively engaged in the fight against poverty, which is a never-ending task.
This effort propagates through the community thanks to the various NGOs that are either wholly or partially financed by the government.
Over the last decade, the welfare net expenditure has increased by about €350 million, reaching an expenditure of €1.265 billion in 2021.
I would like to assure all that none of us is resting on our laurels. In fact, the Ministry for Social Policy and Children’s Rights is currently engaged in developing ‘A Social Vision for 2035’ and is working on a plan to implement the EU’s Child Guarantee.
It is also working on the implementation plan of the social measures found in the 2022 electoral manifesto of the party in government, which has now become the government’s programme for the next five years.
These and other initiatives will surely contribute to the all-round concerted effort that Zammit augured for.