The EU statistics agency, Eurostat, and the UN Human Rights Agency issue regular data on poverty and social deprivation. These statistics throw light on evolving trends and provide indicators of the number of people living on the fringes of society as a result of socio-economic factors that lead to poverty.

The National Office of Statistics has carried out a survey on Income and Living Conditions in 2021 that confirms, worryingly, a rising trend in the number of people affected by material and social deprivation. Nearly 50,000 people (just under 10 per cent of the Maltese population) fell into this deprivation category in 2021, while nearly 28,000 persons (5.5 per cent) were grouped in the severe material and social deprivation category. Both these mark a small but significant percentage point rise of 0.4 per cent over 2020. Last year, nearly eight per cent of children were living in households categorised as being severely deprived. In 2020, 20 per cent of the population were at risk of poverty and social exclusion, a slightly better score than the EU average.

The EU’s commitment in the Europe 2020 social strategy to lift 20 million people out of poverty by 2020 has been missed. In 2021, European institutions, social partners and civil society representatives at the Porto Social Summit agreed to “reduce the number of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion by at least 15 million, including at least five million children, by 2030”.

While it is crucially important to set ambitious targets to monitor progress in the fight against poverty, there are fundamental problems in the way it is monitored that need to be addressed. The COVID pandemic has exposed these deficiencies across all EU member states over the last two years.

The British medical journal Lancet argues that: “The official poverty line needs to be determined, the definition of poverty needs to be better defined, and the choice of poverty indicators, that are largely politically determined, need to be expanded and made more inclusive beyond absolute and relative measures”.

Digital deprivation, for instance, needs to be given more importance as a poverty indicator, especially after the communication barriers many workers and students faced during the pandemic. Other elements that make up well-being, like comprehensive access to healthcare for marginalised sections of the community, also need to be included in the measurement of poverty.

The so-called new poor include people without digital access. Workforce dynamics are changing rapidly towards reliance on automation and artificial intelligence. While this technological advancement has benefitted many, it has also decreased the demand for low-skilled labour and led to job cuts and precarious working conditions. The increasing inequality between the digital and non-digital classes is a new factor in the wealth gap. 

The most vulnerable sections of society need more long-term support and financial aid. Long-term health protection and investment need to be allocated to poor individuals, especially children living in severely deprived households. Without more targeted social investment, the risk of poverty is passed on from one generation to the next.

To avoid repeating the same mistakes of the past, Malta, like the rest of the EU, needs to adopt a strategy that moves beyond merely setting ambitious targets. Coherent measurements and nuanced, finely targeted policies are needed to counter the variety of adverse factors that lie behind the widening inequality in society.

To break the generational cycle of poverty, we need policies that empower young people to avoid the consequences of deprivation, such as poor health, malnourishment, learning and behaviour difficulties, low skills and aspirations and low-paid jobs.

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