The latest Eurostat figures show that one in five people in Malta fall into the category of ‘at risk of poverty or social exclusion’. This is near the EU’s average.

When such statistics are published, a short, sterile debate usually ensues. The government often boasts that the number of those at risk of poverty is on the decline. On the other hand, those who work on the coal face of societal problems argue that there are still too many people at risk of social and economic deprivation. Among those often identified as facing the most significant risks in this regard are children living in single-parent households, pensioners and people with disabilities.

When discussing welfare politics, we need to move away from number crunching and the superficial analysis of statistics and start asking difficult questions about whether our social welfare politics is fit for purpose.

Malta’s policies are not all that different from those of many other European democracies. However, these policies were defined decades ago when the economic and social realities in Europe were very different from what they are today. Like the social security systems of most EU countries, ours is a relic of the last century. It was designed to complement a series of economic policies that established employment as the rock base of economic security. It does not account for the present social and economic realities.

Lately, the COVID pandemic has severely tested the effectiveness of our social security system, even if it is still too early to conduct any meaningful analysis of how different social minorities have been affected. The support given by the government to help employers keep workers in employment has been largely successful. Still, we need to ask whether those out of work for various reasons beyond their control and those working in precarious conditions are benefiting from the safety nets that our social security system is meant to provide.

The liberalisation of economic activities has made a lot of paid work more precarious. Trade unions have lost much of their power to negotiate fair working conditions for the army of low-paid and low-skilled workers, especially those working in the so-called gig economy and in temporary or short-term positions.

Incomes have become more volatile, the future more uncertain for countless families who depend on these workers. Meanwhile, the extended family support system is no longer as effective in easing pressures on single parents and their children, elderly relatives and severely disabled people.

Successive administrations have reined in social spending to discourage a culture of dependence on state support, enforced means testing and introduced policies to get the long-term unemployed back to work. These strategies have had some success. But they also create social injustices. It is time to reform our welfare politics to cater to our society’s new realities.

To do this, we need to ask tough questions. The departure point must be to acknowledge that there is no ideal solution to reducing the numbers of those at risk of poverty and social exclusion. Also, a reformed welfare policy would have to be based on trade-offs, such as between adequacy and affordability, or between universality and equity. A reformed system needs to be affordable and sustainable both now and in the future and across economic cycles.

The core values of a reformed social security strategy must include the importance of providing incentives to work for those who can work. However, it also needs to adequately support people who are genuinely unable to work and those in households whose members are unable to provide the means to help them emerge from the zone of poverty and social exclusion.

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