Struggling to make ends meet

Poverty, and people at the risk of poverty, are on the increase and have been for a while

James and Maria work full time jobs. They have two teenage daughters at home – still in education. The young family live in a modest two bedroomed apartment – they have, at least, another three decades to pay off their home loan. Given their financial commitments and the rising cost of foodstuffs, coupled with their family’s daily needs, this young family is struggling to make ends meet. James and Maria drive cars, but can’t afford to replace them with new ones should the need arise. They earn pay checks, but not big ones. They are not poor, but can easily describe themselves as barely scraping by.

Julia and Mark live in a small, housing apartment. Mark is on minimum wage. A mother of two in her 30s, Julia is currently on maternity leave from her part-time retail job. Finances were tight enough when she had her first child. But now it’s even harder. Mark has been doing overtime to try to bridge the financial gap. Now it’s a struggle to make ends meet. They are not poor, but do fit into the category of the ‘near poor’.

Francis and Doris have been living on their pension for more than two decades. They do not have a home loan to pay. They take care of Nina, their two-year old niece, whilst her parents tend to their full-time jobs. They’ve benefited from the recent decrease in utility bills, but every time they go to the shop to buy anything, particularly food, the price has gone up. Their pension is not enough to cover their expenses. They would like to be able to buy their niece a toy she wants from time to time. But they can’t. Very often, they have to ask their children for financial assistance, which at this point in their life, after years of hard work, they are embarrassed at getting to that stage of asking for help. They have no choice.

Mary’s husband, John is terminally ill and unable to work, leaving her as the sole breadwinner. They have three young children at home – two at secondary school, the other in primary school. They had good income before the husband fell ill. Their children attend private schools. Pulling them out would have a devastating psychological effect on their children. Mary estimates that she brings home €2,000 every month. Their bills are exorbitant – the monthly home loan; school fees; daily necessities and John’s medication. When things get really rough, Mary asks her parents for help.  

Krista’s husband, Peter walked out on her and their 15 year old son. Krista has a retail job. With no savings and a mortgage debt, she’s doing a part-time job. It costs her family life, she hardly sees her son. Her 10 year old car needs new tyres, but she can’t afford to replace them yet and her son has returned home with a letter about a school weekend trip costing €50. Despite putting in several hours of work, Krista and her son are struggling to make ends meet. 

Matthew is in his late forties. The factory where he has worked for the past 15 years has moved its operations abroad. Matthew is unemployed. His wife, Caroline is a full-time housewife. The couple have a 20 and 23 year old. The only thing keeping them afloat is Matthew’s redundancy payment and a small inheritance Caroline’s father left when he died recently.

These families are fictitious, but these stories are far from unique. They could well be yourself, a close relative, a neighbour or a friend. They are not experiencing hunger, do not beg outdoors, but are crying out for help. Like thousands of others, they know first-hand what it’s like to live on the edge. The government prides itself, and justifiably so, that employment rates are up but more needs to be done to help people living on the breadline. The grim truth is that poverty, and people at the risk of poverty are on the increase and have been for a while. Employment statistics may not paint an accurate picture of how people are getting along economically.

It is no secret that thousands of Maltese families, who are not considered poor by local economic standards don’t have enough money for basic expenses like transport, food and daily essentials. And many of those struggling to make ends meet are working full time.

The latest Caritas report, accurately sums up the struggles of many families in Malta. Entitled A Minimum Essential Budget for a Decent Living, the research study conducted by Caritas, followed up a similar one carried out by the Church NGO in 2012 and focused on three low-income household categories: families made up of two adults and two dependent children (aged between 10 and 15), a single parent family with two dependent children and an elderly couple.

The report makes for sombre reading. The research assumed that these families use free public health services, including primary health centres, used public transport and lived in social housing. According to the research, the yearly necessary budget for a family consisting of two parents and two children to live decently was found to amount to €11,446. However, Caritas director Leonid McKay said that such families on one minimum wage who also received in-work benefits and other allowances, get €9,353 – meaning that such families in Malta do not have enough money to scrape through the bare essentials. Thousands of families in Malta are struggling, and have been struggling for years, to make ends meet.

The report reveals that foodstuffs took up the largest chunk of the budget of the essential basket. Food prices saw the biggest growth since the Caritas 2012 study. While the weekly cost of food for a family of two adults and two children was €107.14 in 2012, it now costs €119.44. Caritas also called for the raising of the statutory minimum wage slightly but annually for a period of three years (in addition to COLA). The minimum wage has never been reviewed since its introduction in 1971. It cannot be delayed any further.

The Labour and the Nationalist parties reacted to the report, with Labour arguing that the report confirmed the government’s economic success in job creation and the PN insisting that poverty is on the increase. They are both right. According to NSO figures released lately, there has been a sharp drop in unemployment but there has also been an increase in the number of people at the risk of poverty. A sharp decline in unemployment does not necessarily mean decent wages. The NSO figures don’t show how many newly employed people were still struggling to make ends meet. Strong growth in employment must not blind us to the fact that many people are struggling to live on their salaries because of rising food prices and a rise in the cost of living.

However, it is encouraging that government and the opposition have given the Caritas report its due weight. Hopefully, this shall now be followed by a much needed debate – followed by necessary action. People in need are expecting them to walk the talk, and get off the rhetoric that pushes them apart whilst the people struggle to make ends meet. Amidst the Panamagate scandal which has been dragging on for months, Caritas managed to put the daily struggle of hard working people on the national agenda. Whilst high ranking government officials and politicians are questioned over secret bank accounts abroad, thousands of families and individuals in Malta are struggling to make ends meet.

Raising the minimum wage is probably one of the solutions but that on its own is not enough. People who work for a living put their money right back into our economy and they should be rewarded for that. Too many hardworking people aren’t making enough money to get by. Reducing income inequality will boost our economy and create better paid jobs. The EU has an important role to play through social legislation. We have to aim for a social Europe to help people living in poverty or on the edge of poverty. Introducing a basic income across the EU – which differs according to the country’s needs and realities, and which would be unconditional and not based on means-testing, could be one way how to address the situation. 

The Caritas report is a wake-up call for our legislators, really for all of us.

Frank Psaila, a lawyer by profession, anchors Iswed fuq l-Abjad on Net TV

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