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A growing wave of social and political forces is calling for an increase in the minimum wage in Malta. It is quite evident that the phenomenon of the ‘working poor’ exists in our society. Basically, this refers to persons who are in employment but still find it difficult to make ends meet. Increasing prices of foodstuffs, housing as well as basic lifestyle expectations are all associated with this phenomenon.

Such persons are not the ‘welfare dependent’ category of persons who do not wish to work. These are the persons who are playing by the rules yet losing the game. They are contributing to Malta’s economy, but are getting too little in return to enable a decent standard of living.

And they are not the only category of persons who are in such a precarious situation. For example, many elderly persons face difficulties to make ends meet through their pensions.

This situation is paradoxical given Malta’s economic performance on a macro level. Indeed, Malta is one of the best performers in the EU when it comes to economic growth, unemployment rates and related indicators. In the recent years, Labour and Nationalist governments both introduced reforms which aim to assist persons through active employment measures such as in-work benefits and training.

Indeed, Malta’s welfare system has been a main reason why Malta tends to be characterised by relative, and not absolute poverty. Still, relative poverty is of great significance when thousands of persons find it difficult to enjoy what the vast majority of the population takes for granted. Besides, there are others who are at risk of joining this social category.

It is important to acknowledge that while it is clear that a substantial number of people find it difficult, if not impossible, to make ends meet, there is no monolithic definition of what poverty is all about and what should be done to stop it.

While it is clear that a substantial number of people find it difficult to make ends meet, there is no monolithic definition of what poverty is all about

Some argue that poverty should be measured through financial aspects. This means that someone is poor if he or she does not have sufficient income to purchase the basic goods and services of a society. Hence, this position argues that increase in income or benefits can assist such persons to move out of poverty.

Others say that poverty is intrinsically related to social exclusion. Thus, if one is excluded from activities and interactions which enable a decent quality of life, one is at risk of poverty. This could range from lack of interaction in one’s community to lack of networks and lack of access to transport, clean air and leisure activities. Such factors are not always measurable in financial terms, but can have a direct impact on one’s everyday life.

This takes us to questions on whether poverty is caused by one’s behaviour or by social structures.

The structural approach argues that poverty is largely the product of the context in which one is living. This could have to do with the type of economy one lives in, social policies, one’s location, one’s family background and a myriad of other structural factors. As the argument goes, a person from a working-class background in a working-class locality within a neo-liberal economy is more likely to face poverty than a middle-class person within a strong social model.

The lifestyle approach argues that one’s behaviour and choices are what really influence poverty. Thus, as long as opportunities exist, one can choose to move out of poverty for example through a work ethic and responsible decisions. Thus, if one buys more books than beer, one may be investing in his own social opportunities.

Beyond these two poles lie conceptualisations of poverty which assume that structure and action need not necessarily exclude each other. Material deprivation and social exclusion may sometimes be two sides of the same coin.

The latter approach advocates multi-disciplinary analysis from experts in sociology, economics, psychology, education, anthropology and other disciplines.

It requires a plurality of research methods which can then propose evidence-based policymaking. These could include statistics, surveys, ethnographic analyses of how poverty is lived and interpreted by the poor, discursive analyses of how different social forces define poverty, as well as grounded approaches which depart from observation rather than preconceived ideas.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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