The recent Eurostat report dealing with poverty and social exclusion bore some very welcome news for Malta: on all indicators measuring social inequality and material deprivation, bar one, we scored positively in 2015 compared to 2013. The proportion of Maltese citizens who are severely materially deprived or not benefiting sufficiently from resources and opportunities is diminishing and now stands at well below the EU average.
The report was understandably seized upon with glee by the government. It flaunted it as proof positive of the fairer access to the prosperity being generated by a booming economy and testament to the efficacy of its social policies, designed to ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth with special emphasis on the most needy.
In truth, measures adopted by the government in relation to reduction of water and electricity tariffs, pension increases and the introduction of new benefits, such as the In-work Benefit and the Tapering Scheme, have boosted income for a number of previously unemployed people subsisting wholly on government handouts. It is probable the improved statistics reflect the positive effects of these and similar initiatives. Despite being much maligned for its pro-business policies and mindset, the PL government evidently still harbours, somewhere deep in the recesses of its soul, the concern for social justice which brought it into being nearly a century ago.
It would be unfair not to offer congratulations to the architects of the economic boom and the other measures which have cut swathes through the ranks of the poor. However, not all are convinced that poverty is being tackled in ways which might ensure its eradication.
There is a school of thought – the late, much lamented Charles Miceli comes to mind – which holds that because the economy is performing splendidly, part of the wealth is indeed trickling down to some of the most needy members of society. That said, the argument goes, the inequality embedded in our economic and social systems will ensure that once the economy runs out of steam, poverty will re-embrace a fair number of individuals and families who are at present doing relatively well. Social justice which is at the mercy of the markets is ephemeral and a tragic self-parody.
Moreover, careful consideration of the figures and of the social realities which surround us begs other questions. Are the nation’s resources being deployed as efficiently as they should be in the efforts to ensure a fairer and more humane society? What could have been done to alleviate poverty with the millions which ended up in Vitals Global Health Care’s coffers, for example?
The successes scored must not lull us into a false sense of complacency about the need to strive continuously to alleviate poverty and mitigate social exclusion. While the improvement in the rate of those who struggle with material deprivation has been impressive – the figure for 2016 is nearly half that for 2015 – any initial elation should be tempered by the realisation that the 4.4 per cent figure for 2016 represents some 19,000 people who lack quite basic necessities. That should be enough to push us to ask what can be done to help them improve their lot in as short a time as possible.
Rising rents is one of the biggest causes for concern. The Eurostat statistics rely solely on income to determine the risk of poverty, irrespective of outlays. The astronomical increase in rent not only has a bearing on the standard of living of many individuals but also casts some doubt on the accuracy of the rosy picture the figures depict.
Also, is the economy booming – and material poverty falling – at the expense of the environment? The recent objections to the granting of planning permission for hotels and fuel stations are a stark reminder that any understanding of decent living conditions cannot be limited to material aspects. The impression is growing that Malta has crossed the line into overdevelopment and that all of us, particularly the less well-off, will pay the price in terms of health and quality of life. What price material and social improvement if cement and concrete blight our existence?
The noble ideals of true egalitarianism and material well-being for all citizens call for continuous political and social action in many spheres. Important strides forward have been made but much ground has still to be covered. Our efforts must be guided by aspirations for an economic development which ensures equity, enhances the well-being of the materially deprived and respects the social, environmental and moral aspects of existence. If our vision of the fight against poverty and social exclusion loses momentum or is not based on a wide view of progress, spiritually we will all be the poorer.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial
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