For all of us today, poverty is a persistent challenge that needs to be addressed by society at large. It is often a pointless exercise to focus on poverty if there does not exist an understanding of the poor: who they are, where they are located and why they are poor.

...we all need to learn to listen to the voice of the poor...- Ruth Brincat

There are certain social groups who are more likely to experience poverty and deprivation. Unemployed and underemployed persons are at a greater risk of poverty than those in regular paid employment, although one must acknowledge that employment does not guarantee an escape from poverty.

A recent report about poverty in Malta, published by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice (Cardona, 2010) shows, through case studies, that poverty does not simply relate to lack of money. Other categories of vulnerable persons who are more likely to slide into poverty are victims of abuse and neglect, chronically mentally ill persons, irregular immigrants, the elderly, persons with disability, children, single-parent families from vulnerable backgrounds and illiterate persons from families with a persistent dependency on social welfare benefits.

According to the Eurobarometer report of 2010 (Eurostat 2010), Malta’s poverty rate stands at 15 per cent, which is slightly better than the EU average of 17 per cent. Conversely, the island’s elderly are in a more vulnerable position, with 22 per cent of those over 65 considered to be at risk of poverty, which is three per cent more than in the EU as a whole.

Indebtedness is another factor that pushes persons and families into poverty. Falling into debt and being unable to repay the loan due to exorbitant interest rates drives one into a poverty trap. Vulnerable people regularly slip into a bitter pattern of indebtedness: they enter into debts to pay older debts in order to cope with the needs of the family.

Vulnerable persons such as those who are illiterate and suffer from mental health problems or cognitive impairments are often lured by companies into signing contracts for home packages. Lacking the skills to maintain a repayment schedule in line with the terms of the signed contract, they find themselves having to pay fines as well as the total cost of the item that was originally marketed as “free”.

Usurers hone in on vulnerable families, dropping by at people’s houses to offer lower cost items that they have already identified as being essential to the people they target.

It is a known fact that living in poverty impacts the physical, social and psychological well-being of families. This lack of well-being further drives people to feel apart from the rest of society. They become socially excluded. They find that they cannot, or feel ashamed to, participate in other activities that people take for granted: sports and cultural activities, volunteering, membership in community-based groups and organisations. Living apart from others deprives vulnerable families of their dignity and drives them to despair.

Unless and until this phenomenon of poverty is seen as a direct violation of the dignity of the person, this reality will worsen, as we see it doing all around us. Poverty is on the increase. None of the UN and EU poverty-reduction targets are being met. Poverty cannot allow us to remain passive. It is the responsibility of all of us citizens, the state, Church denominations, NGOs, entrepreneurs and their businesses, banks and all other stakeholders to dialogue and to engage in collaborative measures that build on and complement each other. Innovative ideas as to how to effectively tackle poverty and the development of policies that truly benefit poor families are greatly needed.

In order to be able to do this, we all need to learn to listen to the voice of the poor and to understand the reality that pushed them into poverty. In doing so together, we might identify new ways of assisting poor families to determine their goals and to move towards achieving them.

We need mechanisms through which we study in depth what members of the European Anti Poverty Forum Malta are doing that really works. We need to involve poor families in reflecting on their situations and underlying causes so that they become more prepared to influence national policies and action plans for social inclusion.

* Today is International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

The author is PRO of the Anti Poverty Forum, Malta.

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