The current situation of the Coronavirus pandemic has caused a huge shock to the European economy, causing devastating economic and social consequences for thousands of people, and putting at risk one of the fundamental human rights – human dignity right.
The problem of inequality has worsened in recent years. The economic crisis has had profound effects in Europe, reversing the effects of years of convergence in living standards and subjecting social protection systems under considerable pressure. Inequalities have increased in most Member States, raising concerns both in terms of sustainable growth and social cohesion.
What is poverty? Is poverty a direct violation of human security?
We can define poverty as “a human condition characterized by sustained or chronic deprivation of resources, capacity, choices, security and power necessary for the enjoyment of an adequate standard of living and other civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights” (Commission on Human Rights Social, Economic and Cultural Rights of the United Nations, 2001), that is, we could say that poverty is the deprivation of the necessary conditions to have access to a dignified life.
However, we must distinguish absolute or extreme poverty from relative poverty. Absolute or extreme poverty refers to a situation in which people are not satisfied with the basic needs for their survival. For example, these people may be hungry, lack drinking water, adequate housing, sufficient clothing, or medicine and may have to struggle to stay alive. This situation is most common in developing countries, but some people in the European Union, namely homeless people, or Roma communities, continue to live in this situation of extreme poverty. On the other hand, relative poverty designates a situation in which the lifestyle and income of some people is well below the standard of living of the country or region in which they live to the point of having to struggle to be able to have normal life and to participate in economic, social and cultural activities. This reality differs from country to country, depending on the standard of living of most of the population. Although not as extreme as absolute poverty, relative poverty is still quite worrying and harmful.
In this way, poverty, leading to serious social and food insecurities, is a direct violation of human security. Not only does it threaten the existence of a large number of people, it also contributes to their vulnerability to violence, mistreatment and their social, political and economic silence. Poverty is a state of deprivation, as well as vulnerability. And, consequently, the growing inequalities and discrimination generated, between and within nations violate the rights of the poor to live in security and with dignity.
How is poverty measured?
Within the EU, poverty is generally measured against the relative monetary poverty thresholds. This implies calculating the average equivalent incomes of households in a given country. Thus, the poverty line is established and will correspond to a percentage of that average income. As a rule, these poverty lines vary between 40% and 70% of the household, that is, they reflect a general idea of the risk of poverty rate, but these values can also be disaggregated by age, sex, type of household family and professional situation, thus giving a more detailed view of those at risk of poverty. In other words, this means that one can assess the particular situation of specific groups such as children, the elderly or the unemployed. In the EU, the population with a net annual income below 60% of the median income is at risk of poverty.
What is the poverty situation in the European Union?
In 2010, the European Council approved a strategy – Europe 2020 Strategy – which represented a significant advance in the definition of social policy at European level. In fact, by establishing as one of the five main objectives, to be achieved in the 2010-2020 time horizon, the promotion of social inclusion through the reduction of poverty and social exclusion, the EU reinforced the importance attributed to social issues in two important aspects. Firstly, and for the first time, stating the objective of reducing poverty and social exclusion in the EU is associated with the definition of a concrete and quantifiable target, which makes it possible to verify the success or failure of its implementation: the EU proposes to reduce 20 million people at risk of poverty and social exclusion by 2020. Secondly, the Europe 2020 Strategy enshrines as a central indicator for the evaluation of social inclusion policies a summary indicator designated as the risk of poverty and social exclusion rate. From an analysis focused exclusively on the risk of monetary poverty rate, we move on to an indicator that combines monetary poverty, material deprivation and weak connection to the labour market. The multidimensional nature of social exclusion is thus clearly reinforced.
However, this 2020 strategy was unsuccessful, having only reached 3.1 million of the modest targets of 20 million people to be lifted out of poverty. According to Eurostat, in 2018, the at-risk-of-poverty rate (after social transfers) in the EU-27 was 16.8%, with virtually no change compared to 2017 (16.9%). There was a higher risk of poverty rate in the following countries: Romania (23.5%), Latvia (23.3%), Lithuania (22.9%), Bulgaria (22.0%), Estonia (21, 9%), Spain (21.5%) and Italy (20.3%). On the other hand, the countries that had the lowest risk of poverty rate were the Czech Republic (9.6%), Finland (12%), Slovakia (12.2%), Denmark (12.7%) and Hungary (12.8%).
Consequently, governments, policy makers and society in general cannot combat poverty and social exclusion without analysing inequalities in society, whether they are of an economic or social nature. In this way, Eurostat reveals that the 20% of the population with the highest equivalent disposable income received 5.1 times more than the 20% with the lowest equivalent disposable income in the EU-27. This ratio varied considerably between Member States, from 3.0 in Slovakia to 6.0 or more in Spain, Italy, and Latvia and to more than 7.0 in Lithuania, Romania, and Bulgaria, where it peaked at 7.7.
Despite this, good results have been achieved in some of the other targets for 2020, for example in reducing early school leaving rates and in increasing educational qualifications at university level. But poverty is so damaging to people in that situation and to those who aspire to social quality and social justice that it is really a European priority to eradicate poverty and social exclusion. It is necessary that all elements of society come together in this prevention and in this fight.
The situation of the new coronavirus pandemic, which is causing enormous damage to the European economy, should also be highlighted. To help repair the economic and social damage brought by the coronavirus pandemic, kick-start European recovery, and protect and create jobs, the European Commission proposed on 27 May a major recovery plan for Europe based on harnessing the full potential of the EU budget.
1. Council of Europe. “Poverty”. Available : https://www.coe.int/en/web/compass/poverty
2. EAPN Portugal (2020). “O que é a pobreza e como combatê-la?”. Available : https://www.eapn.pt/documento/671/o-que-e-a-pobreza-e-como-combate-la
3. EAPN Portugal (2020). “Poverty Watch – PORTUGAL 2020”. Available: https://www.eapn.pt/documento/695/poverty-watch-2020-portugal
4. European Commission. “Combater as desigualdades”. Available: https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/file_import/european-semester_thematic-factsheet_addressing-inequalities_pt.pdf
5. European Parliament. “Fight against poverty, social exclusion, and discrimination”. Available : https://www.europarl.europa.eu/ftu/pdf/pt/FTU_2.3.9.pdf
6. Eurostat (2020). “Income poverty statistics”. Available: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Income_poverty_statistics
7. European Commission (2020). “Recovery plan for Europe”. Available : https://ec.europa.eu/info/live-work-travel-eu/health/coronavirus-response/recovery-plan-europe_en
8. European Commission (2020). “Jobs and economy during the coronavirus pandemic”. Available : https://ec.europa.eu/info/live-work-travel-eu/health/coronavirus-response/jobs-and-economy-during-coronavirus-pandemic_en