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A decent life in pounds, shillings and pence

Caritas has just published a detailed study to determine the minimum budget for three types of vulnerable families to have a decent life. Kurt Sansone reports.

When Caritas director Mgr Victor Grech two years ago said that poverty was rising and suggested increasing the minimum wage to address the problem, his proposal was greeted with apprehension.

The Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry warned that such a course of action would threaten competitiveness and the Prime Minister had gone on record saying that increasing the minimum wage did not necessarily address the social problems faced by poor families.

At the time, Mgr Grech’s proposal was based on the hands-on experience Caritas, a Church organisation providing social services, had working with poor people.

Today, Mgr Grech is reiterating the appeal for the minimum wage to rise to €180 weekly from €158 but this time around his proposal is backed by a detailed study undertaken by Caritas.

The year-long study, A Minimum Budget For A Decent Living, drawn up by a team of experts, focused on three low-income household categories and established a minimum budget for a decent living based on a basket of essential items.

The researchers found that the minimum essential budget required for a household of two adults and two children to have a decent life amounted to €10,634 per year.

A single parent household with two children needs a minimum yearly budget of €8,581.

An elderly couple – 65 years and over – would need €6,328.

The study assumes the selected households benefit from a range of social assistance measures such as free medicine under the Pink Card scheme, free food received under the EU food aid scheme, living in a government property at subsidised rent and receiving energy vouchers.

Mgr Grech said the research was based on the important premise that social assistance was fully available and accessible.

Issues such as out of stock medicines at the government dispensary or inaccessibility to EU food aid because the local parish did not distribute it, obviously upped family expenses, he noted.

Mgr Grech insisted the study focused on the most vulnerable in society, arguing poverty had to be exposed to be addressed.

According to the survey on income and living conditions conducted by the National Statistics Office in 2010, at least 3.3 per cent of households with two adults and two children – 2,363 people – had income that was lower than the minimal essential benchmark.

The figure was more dramatic for lone parent households with two children, where more than half, or 2,418 individuals, had income lower than the benchmark.

The NSO study had found that 8.1 per cent of elderly couple households – 1,535 people – went below the minimal benchmark established by Caritas.

Mgr Grech said Caritas had “a mission and a mandate” to expose the reality of poverty.

“We speak about the wounds not only to expose them but to heal them.”

Confirming the conservative calculations undertaken by the research team, lead author Leonid McKay, a sociologist, emphasised the study was based on “a frugal basket of essential goods”.

Car ownership and use, mobile telephony, appliances such as dehumidifiers and air conditioners and eating out at restaurants are some of the items excluded from the study.

It defines a minimum essential standard of living as “one which meets a person’s physical, mental, moral, spiritual and social well-being”.

“By minimum, we mean an adequate benchmark to measure what should constitute an acceptable and decent standard of living beyond the level of survival for simply food, clothing and shelter,” the report said.

The basic basket of essential items determined by consensus between the research team members was split in eight categories: food, clothing, personal care, health, household goods and maintenance, education & leisure, transport & housing.

Nutritionist Suzanne Piscopo even drew up a seven-day simple menu that provided for healthy eating on which the food cost calculation was based. The report includes a number of recommendations, including increasing the minimum wage by 13.8 per cent to €180 per week.

Economist Karm Farrugia, a member of the research team, said there was a clear economic case for the increase, adding the current minimum wage still reflected the social concept of decency prevailing in 1971 when first introduced.

He said increasing the minimum wage should not and must not lead to an escalation in overall wage levels and the report urged the government to even legislate to prohibit any wage increase demands based solely on relativity with the statutory minimum wage.

“This prohibition, which should exclude claims from pensioners, could persist for, say, a period of three years, unless eventually extended,” the report says.

The study recommends policymakers “address with urgency” the financial situation of lone parent families as Malta registers the highest share in the EU of single parents with children who have disposable income below the at-risk-of poverty threshold.

Social security benefits for people who earn less than the minimum essential budget for their household type should be strengthened.

The state must also ensure entitlement to free medication through the public health system is reviewed regularly to reflect a just and accessible system. It urges investment in community level projects for more sustainable and adequate consumption patterns and lifestyles by raising awareness on issues such as energy and water.

In this respect, engineer Marco Cremona, who was involved in drawing up water and electricity calculations, urged the authorities to keep in mind low-income families when issuing schemes to encourage people to buy energy-efficient appliances.

“Although various appliances were excluded from the study, in low-income families it is very likely to find old inefficient essential appliances. These families would not afford the capital outlay to buy new energy-efficient models and this is what government schemes should focus on.”

The study also urges school subjects such as home economics to be taught to all students so that they would become responsible citizens who make informed decisions and take action to promote and safeguard personal, family and community well-being.

Mgr Grech insisted money should not be seen as a handicap to improving the situation of the poor. “Just like the government found millions of euros to invest in various capital projects, with goodwill, the financial means to help the most vulnerable could be found as well.”

The elderly are among the vulnerable identified in a Caritas study, with a couple aged 65 and over needing a minimum of €6,328 per year to enjoy a decent frugal life. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

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