Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Poverty in Malta

Living in a material world (Article from The Sunday Circle, January 2007)

In Malta, unlike many other countries, we don’t have beggars on our streets, or people sleeping on benches or in cardboard boxes because they are homeless. But there are a number of people living on the brink of poverty, the only thing keeping them from begging is pride. The Sunday Circle investigates the issue of material poverty.

Trying to research an article about poverty in Malta is far from easy. There are a million definitions of what poverty is or can be, and problems related with poverty in its various forms are complex and often hidden… those living below the poverty line hardly ever willing to speak about their suffering. The Sunday Circle decided to investigate material poverty, because although it is one of the least talked forms of poverty, it becomes intertwined with others. And as the saying goes, when it rains, it pours, at least for Malta’s poor. So you often find material problems compounded with troubles stemming from ill health, old age, disability, unplanned or unwanted pregnancies, not to speak of vices from alcohol and drug addiction to prostitution to becoming a victim of usury. But setting aside the related problems, the question is, in this day and age, can people live on a minimum wage, or worse still, on just social assistance?

The minimum wage is Lm252 a month, or Lm63 a week. A Household Budgetary Survey in 2000 indicated that 10.3 per cent of the Maltese population earn below an estimated poverty line. However, surveys are dull figures in books. To get a better idea, the Sunday Circle spoke to a number of Members of Parliament, and candidates, who are currently doing house visits in preparation for the next general election, whether poverty is a problem in Malta. (MPs and candidates were guaranteed anonymity to protect their constituents.) “You can’t say poverty is common, but in particular areas, it is more rife and visible than other,” one current MP explained. “In parts of the Cottonera area, parts of Valletta and Marsa, one sees incredible things.” “I’ve been to ‘houses’ consisting of two rooms, one overlying another, with a hole in the wall for a toilet and a sink forming the bathroom midway up the stairs. I’ve seen houses like this, if you can call them houses, with up to four or six people living in them. In one particular house I can still visualise, a mother, and three daughters, one of who is handicapped, lives,” a candidate added. “In another, a mother, her two daughters, who are both unmarried mothers, live. These people live off what their mother and daughters make by working as cleaners in the neighbourhood. They are really scraping the barrel to survive.” “You enter houses with very basic furniture: just a table and a few chairs, a cooker and fridge in a room that acts as kitchen, dining, sitting and living room. Some don’t have a TV set. Most have very basic bathrooms, often without a bath. In spite of their situation, many people are surprisingly clean. But some seem to come straight out a Charles Dickens’ novel,” the MP continued. A different MP said she often came face to face with situations that, were it not for cheaper prices of pasta and polpa, those living on, or under the poverty line would be on the verge of starvation. “Today, with a packet of pasta and a tin of polpa you can cook a basic meal for four for under 50 cents. But for how long can you eat like that?,” she said sadly. So how do the poor survive? What’s the typical shopping list for people who have to live on the bare minimum. An MP put us in touch with a woman who explained that for her she could not speak of a shopping list as such. “We can only buy a few things with the limited amount of money that we have for food. A loaf of bread, a carton of milk, some ham and some cheese still costs around Lm2 at the grocer every morning. But you also have to cook something at least once a day, and you have to buy some vegetables, and occasionally some chicken, fish or meat from time to time. “You also have to buy soap and washing powders or liquids. If you also consider your water and electricity bills, the surcharge, your TV licence and bus fares you’d soon realise you have nothing in your purse and a hole in your pocket. And I am not speaking about having to buy clothes for yourself and the children, or expenses related to education, or buying top brand items. But as everyone knows, cheap items don’t last that long either,” she said.
But turning back to the minimum wage, when you deduct daily expenses, it seems impossible to make ends meet. Some people try to pull themselves out of these dire straits by working more, but it’s often not easy to get jobs if – which is unfortunately the case for many – they have hardly any education or training. Another candidate added that most of the population equate poverty with laziness and lack of will power. “This may be partly true, but when you are caught in the poverty trap, and especially if you have sick relatives or children, you can’t make ends meet and many people go to sleep night after night hungry. “Sometimes you feel so touched that even though you have gone to speak to people in this situation to basically ask them to remember you when election time comes, you feel compelled to leave a small donation behind. I have no doubt that such people do not beg because of pride,” he said. Another MP argues that people can live with whatever they have and get, albeit wages or social welfare assistance. “If you are living in the middle of nowhere, with nothing better to aspire to, it could be true that people can not dig themselves out of the poverty trap. “But when one is surrounded by wealth, or people living in much better circumstances just a stone’s throw away, and when you are being bombarded with messages to buy and consume more, not to speak about peer pressure, that’s an entirely different story. You can’t miss what you don’t know, but desire unfulfilled breeds discontent, and that’s what most poor people are facing,” he said.
In some areas, people are so hard up for cash that they exchange their social security or pay cheque at the grocer’s shop before the due date. Some people act as a bank and cash such cheques themselves, taking a nibble of it in the process of course. “When you have a Lm100 cheque and someone charges you Lm2 or Lm5 for cashing it a day or two or a week before, it shows you how hard up some people are,” a different MP explained. “To top it all up, you’d often find that these people, though hungry, would still smoke a packet of cigarettes or two a day. Most people in these groups are helpless. They would like to be better, and see others living better than they do, but they can’t get out of their rut. “Their environment seems to dictate it. They live in substandard housing, which is often found clustered in areas which attract more of people also in the poverty trap… these people also don’t have jobs, low levels of education, higher percentages of crime, single parent families, underage pregnancies, drug and alcohol addiction. They are caught in a vicious circle,” he continued. “Were it not for the corner grocer which gives them food items on account, jotting down what they owe him on a copy book and hoping to get paid when they receive their social security or pay cheque, these people would be forced to beg or remain hungry. The copybook in the grocer’s store is like a credit card for these people.”
Social Policy Minister Dolores Cristina recently said there was a great deal of hidden poverty in Malta. “I know what poverty is like in the second district (Birgu, Isla, Bormla, part of Zabbar, Fgura, Kalkara and Xghajra) where people don’t have enough money to buy food, pay electricity bills, or own a car. But I have started seeing just how much there is since I started contesting the tenth district (Pembroke, San Gilijan, Paceville, Sliema, Swieqi, Ibrag and Madliena) which, incidentally, is regarded to be the wealthiest,” she said. Adding that one of the issues is that many of the people considered as poor find it difficult to escape from the poverty trap – and ways and means of doing so are easier said than done. As the saying goes, there is no such thing as a free meal and everyone has to work hard for his daily bread. But it is clear that some have to work harder than others, and even then, it is not certain that there will be no belly rumblings. Very often, the pangs of hunger remain hidden because pride takes precedence.

1 comment:

ちひろ said...

Hi I'm Chichi. Please come to Japan someday and investigate why we think that we didn't have enough money even we got high wage.Rent is much more expensive than Malta but I don't pay for my house. still think It's difficult for me to save money here.:<