To have and have not, at Christmas

There is a danger in measuring a country’s economic well-being only through the Gross Domestic Product. That view looks only at the ‘haves’, and ignores the existence of the ‘have-nots’ altogether

In an understandably jubilant tweeted response to the latest Eurobarometer report, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said the survey “shows [that] amongst all EU citizens, the Maltese are the most convinced about direction of their country (68%) and have highest trust in Government (63%). Maltese families state they are doing well (92%), [and that] jobs (94%) and economy (95%) are also in good shape.”

But while the figures do indeed project an image of good economic health, there are undeniably growing indications that material poverty is on the increase. The existence of a Foodbank in Valletta is one example of a development that is in many ways alarming, yet which has now come to be accepted almost without question.

Reverend Kim Hurst, founder and chairperson at the Lifeline Foundation, told MaltaToday that the Foodbank was set up after a member of her church saw an individual going through bins in Valletta back in 2015. 

“What they were doing was picking up fast food cartons that people had thrown away, to eat the food that people had left… and we thought if it had gotten to the stage where people were having to rummage through bins looking for food, we needed to help. So we spoke with social workers and asked ‘Do you struggle to feed families sometimes?’ and they said ‘Yes.’” 

The initiative is in many ways uncomfortably reminiscent of the Victory Kitchens during World War Two… even though, at that time, Malta was on the brink of starvation. There is therefore something paradoxical about a similar phenomenon arising today, in 21st century Malta, at a time when official statistics present such a different picture.

Here, the statistics themselves may also be slightly misleading. It may well be true that more people are going through a phase of financial well-being at the moment, and are likely to be satisfied with the country’s economic direction. And there is certainly much to be satisfied with when examining employment figures and economic growth.

But it could also be the case that, while fewer in number, people who are affected by poverty are harder hit than ever before, too. The majority of the people availing of the Foodbank’s services are working people who for one reason or another still aren’t able to financially manage independently – and many find themselves struggling due to the increase in rents Malta has seen over the last few years.

A recent KPMG report shows that average rental prices in Malta, excluding Gozo, had risen by roughly 47% between 2013 and 2016. Salaries have not risen concomitantly, and we may be facing a future where homelessness becomes a common, everyday sight.

Significantly, Hurst said that when the Foodbank first started they were servicing 10 families per week. Over time the number has increased – now the Foodbank services 80 families per week. In October, it distributed over 300 packs of food, which means that 1,300 individuals would otherwise have not had enough food to eat.

Hurst’s comments speak of a reality that is so far removed from the usual discourse on economic growth and political browbeating on construction and development. Christmas should be a time for reflection, but also for deeper policy analysis by parties and think-tanks.

Clearly, there are deep pockets of poverty hidden behind the glossy never of Malta’s economic success story. If we truly want to build up a nation that is justifiably proud of its successes, we must understand where these pockets are; a reality that is also tied in with the unsustainable housing market that prices people out of their home towns in search for rented properties, at times with no security at all.

When talking about poverty, we must also resist dramatising the extreme cases. Poverty and social exclusion can manifest themselves in various forms. Obviously, household income has a big impact on living standards. However, other aspects may prevent full participation in society.

The latter may include monetary poverty, material deprivation, and very low work intensity, and people who may be affected by two or even all three of these potential poverty or social exclusion factors.

Under EU methodology, the at-risk-of-poverty rate would mean that 72,143 persons (16.9%) in Malta are living below the equivalised threshold of €8,698 (60% of median national equivalised income). At this rate, over 18,000 households in Malta represent a segment of the population that are living at risk of poverty, something that seems to be inconceivable with the talk of Malta’s rapid economic growth a subject of daily conversation.

Economic disparity is another reality that must also be addressed. There is a danger in measuring a country’s economic well-being only through the Gross Domestic Product. That view looks only at the ‘haves’, and ignores the existence of the ‘have-nots’ altogether.

There is a pressing need to find an alternative to the current system which robs people of their time and control over their relatively short lives. We need an alternative by which people reclaim time for their own wellbeing, and that of others.

These are sobering realities to contemplate, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas: traditionally, a time for giving, and to be mindful of the most vulnerable.