Do not blame the poor | Leonid McKay

Leonid McKay, one of the authors of a Caritas study ‘A Minimum Budget for a Decent Living’ refutes the prevailing idea that the poor are to blame for bringing it all upon themselves and advocates political solutions which address structural poverty.

Leonid McKay (Photo: Ray Attard/MediaToday)
Leonid McKay (Photo: Ray Attard/MediaToday)

In his research on poverty - which goes beyond the current Caritas report and involves stepping into the homes of poor people - McKay has also met the people behind the statistics.

"I found that people are mistaken when they think that these people have brought poverty on themselves. I contest the self-inflicted approach."

Surely, in modern societies poverty is complex and multifaceted. "I met people who were engaged in prostitution, mothers whose partners abandoned them as soon as they discovered they are pregnant... I met persons suffering from mental health problems which aggravate domestic conditions and persons who lost their jobs and could not go back to work because of their roles of carers of children and elderly who are entirely dependent on them..."

What irks McKay is the whole notion of blaming poverty on the poor themselves.

"It is unfair to blame the poor and consider them as victims of personal circumstances. I look at poverty as a structural problem, the result of an unjust social and economic system, not of personal choice."

Another misconception is that people do not work because they are lazy and prefer to rely on welfare assistance. He states that it is much more a complex issue and fears generalisations.

While not excluding cases of abuse, he contends that most people who are not in employment aren't in this situation because they do not wish to work, but because they either they lack the required skills, or find themselves in difficult situations related to sickness, injury and domestic problems.

All studies carried out in the past years (including those of the National Office of Statistics) show that single parents are the category most at risk of poverty. 

But this is also the category which is most readily accused of scrounging on welfare.  As soon as the words 'single parent' are uttered, many people think that these people put themselves in this condition simply to skip housing queues and take different benefits. But while not excluding cases of abuse, this is not the case in most cases.

"Most of these people do not have nail polish, neither do they spend money on personal luxuries... as soon they receive the relief cheque they spend it on food or essential things... even to pay debts."

One risk is that these people have been brought up in a culture of dependency, where single parent families were themselves brought up in similar circumstances and where they got used to depending on the meagre pay cheque, rather than seeking work.

But while recognising that poverty is often inherited from one generation to the next, for McKay this is no excuse for not intervening to stop these poverty cycles from perpetuating themselves.

When I raise the issue of dependency on welfare, McKay is quick to point out that the difference between the minimum wage and welfare benefits is not enough of an incentive to encourage these people to work.

"Things make more sense for these people to continue receiving benefits while doing the odd job, when possible, in order to meet their basic needs."

In fact, the proposal made in the recently presented Caritas study to raise the minimum wage from the current €158 to €180 was principally made with this aim in mind. However, he contends that simply raising the minimum wage is not the only solution.

Most of the people who, according to the study, do not earn enough income to live a decent life, are very likely to be unemployed. So this invites the question: how can an increase in the minimum wage help those who are not even working?

"We look at the question from the perspective of persons living in poverty and who are not working. If the minimum wage is raised in the way we are proposing, could this serve as an incentive for these people to work? However, we noted that without economic sustainability, efforts to enhance social conditions would not only fall flat, but even turn out to be counter-productive."

Another proposal made in the Caritas study that has drawn attention suggests that the State should at least cover the NI contributions for those whose income falls below the benchmark in the study.

Yet raising the minimum wage is not the only way of addressing poverty. Education and health policies are also interconnected.

 "The education system should continue to focus on subjects like Personal and Social Development and Home Economics, which nurture responsible citizenship and endow people with basic skills in running a household."

With this aim in view, Caritas is currently involved in a pilot project financed by the Malta Community Chest Fund through which a number of home economics teachers are visiting vulnerable families to help them in things like budgeting, saving energy and water resources and nutrition.

"One meets families with persons with high blood pressure who do not even know what kind of food is good for them... it is not just the system of formal education which is important, but also the informal education provided in the community."

Studies show a direct connection between diet and poverty.

"The lower the income, the most unhealthy diets one finds. The same applies to sexual health. "

Even the prevalence of single parent households in certain localities could be a symptom of poverty rather than its cause - a result of the lack of awareness on sexual health among poorer households in these localities.

Local councils also have an important role in helping families to make the right decisions.

Education is the main key for social mobility.

McKay welcomes the introduction of colleges which have done away with a very rigidly streamed system that labelled students as failures from a young age simply for failing an exam at 11 years.

"If we give the new system a chance for the next few years, I am sure it will have an impact even if there are objections to this system from a number of quarters."

The aim of the Caritas study was to trigger a debate on a social category whose income is not enough to live a decent life. 

The existence of such a category was not a new discovery. In fact, subsequent Household Budgetary Surveys issued by the National Office of Statistics have already shown that there is a significant number of people whose income is not sufficient to cater for their needs.  

But while the NSO provides figures based on the declared incomes of families, the Caritas study wanted to set a yardstick by establishing the minimum income required for families to live a decent life.

In fact, the Caritas study establishes a benchmark for three different categories; namely, families composed of two adults with two children, families composed of a single parent and two dependent children and families composed of two elderly persons living together.

The first category was chosen because it is the most common among families with children. Single-parent households and those composed of elderly persons were chosen because these kinds of families are both locally and internationally considered to be most at risk of poverty.

The Caritas study shows that there are more than 6,300 persons in these three categories who do not earn enough money to live a decent life.

But Caritas has described this figure as "very conservative". 

This is because these 6,300 persons consist of persons who are receiving the maximum of benefits offered by the State in terms of energy benefits, free medicines and free food from the EU. They are also benefiting from social housing (paying the legal possible minimum rent) and rely entirely on the State for health and education.

Also excluded from the basket of necessities was the use of a car and a mobile phone, amongst other things which are considered to be essentials by many.

This means that these costs have been eliminated from the expenditure of these people. This also means that the 6,300 figure does not include persons who are not eligible for all or some of these benefits, and therefore they have a higher expenditure.

But this only makes the 6,300 figure even more shocking.

"It is even more significant that despite benefiting from all State benefits and relying exclusively on State services in matters like education and health, these people still cannot make ends meet."

In this context, McKay insists that rather than dismantling the Welfare State as some insist, the country should continue investing in this sector to ensure a decent living for those who in current circumstances cannot even provide for their families.

Part of the answer could be means testing certain benefits towards those being most in need without endangering the welfare of those in employment who could drift into poverty if the government abandons universal benefits. For McKay, it is all about finding a balance between benefits which should remain universal for all, and benefits which should be directed at the most vulnerable categories.

"We would like to trigger a discussion among policy-makers based on the benchmarks established in this study, which should provide them with the tools to address these issues in an informed way."

What is innovative about the Caritas study is that for the first time, it established the minimum needs of these categories.

McKay is positively surprised by the reaction of the authorities to the report.

On Monday, the report was presented to cabinet and on Tuesday, parliament's social affairs committee discussed it. The next step will be discussing the document with the social partners at the MCESD.

One risk is that poverty is being concentrated in pockets where one finds rental property. This is emerging in another research currently in progress. "This study is not intended to gauge the level of poverty in Malta. Rather, it intends to map pockets of relative concentrated poverty."

Studies also show a direct relationship between poverty and availability of rented property. Some of the poverty clusters are found where there are privately owned properties especially in the north of Malta like some areas in Qawra and Bugibba.  What is certain is that poverty is less visible than it was before - possibly leading some people to believe it to be nothing but a statistical fiction.

"Poverty today has become more invisible and to understand what poverty means, one has to go beyond people's doorsteps and enter their home."

Apart from coordinating the Caritas Study, McKay has teamed up with Dr Saviour Formosa to map those clusters and pockets with the largest concentration of poverty in the Maltese islands.

The study analysed the distribution of 8,645 incidences of legally-separated females and single, unmarried parents on non-contributory welfare benefits.

The study shows that Qawra and Valletta top the list of poverty hotspots in the Maltese islands. At a lower risk, Xghajra, the social housing estates of Pembroke, Hamrun, Cospicua and the urban sprawl of Marsascala exhibit pockets at risk of poverty clusters.

The study is now in the second phase, and McKay is carrying out one-to-one interviews with single mothers from the identified pockets. This is giving McKay an insight into the real conditions in which these categories live.

The Minimum Budget for a Decent Living was authored by Leonid McKay, Joe Sammut, Karm Farrugia and Dr Suzanne Piscopo.


Patricia Marsh
The poor says that it is the government's fault. The government says that it is due to their fault. I think that it is a mixture of both. It is true that some people have to blame no one but themselves for being in the poverty line, however it is also very true that due to extremely high cost of living, energy bills, gas prices and others it is very difficult for middle class people to make ends meet especially those with an average income. The government must ensure that instead of spending money on useless projects (teatru bla saqaf, bridge li ma jwassal ghal imkien u parlament gdid)help out these people in one way or another. I am extremely disappointed of how the church rarely mentions a word regards poverty, but I am more than sure that it will but only when there is a change in government.
Talk is cheap and its easy to look good being generous with other people's money - this has also been popular with politicians from time immemorial - be it free bread in ancient Rome bought with the blood on conquered nations or the sweat of tax payers in modern times. People are not responsible for their actions ? Off course they are! People take business risk and don't expect to be reimbursed if they fail; other families have both parents working - sacrificing time with their children; one child families are common. The opportunities to study and better oneself are there. People who are successful is typically through sacrifice and hardwork - and they have no one to thanks but themselves. The same applies for those who are less successful. However - there is an issue here of unnecessary costs and waste which is brought about by corruption and theft so endemic in Malta. This situation is pushing the middle class into poverty and the poor into desperation. This however is not an issue that will be resolved by minimum wage increases. Caritas finds it expedient to ignore the true nature of the problem - and as with all wrong medication, will worsen the problem.
Alex Grech
i don't blame the poor, i blame politicians and bureaucrat like you mr mckay!