Budget just the first step in addressing issues faced by those in poverty – Caritas Director
This year’s budget is just the first step in addressing issues relating to those at risk or already in poverty, Caritas Malta Managing Director Leonid McKay has said.
Mr McKay was being interviewed by The Malta Independent’s Content Director Pierre Portelli, in a newly launched programme called INDEPTH which is available on www.independent.com.mt.
The programme dealt with the budget and those on benefits, at risk of poverty and in poverty.
Mr McKay explains that if the state does not continue to build on this year’s budget, then the voices of those in poverty would be extinguished.
Quoting the National Statistics Office, in 2014 there were 66,000 people living in poverty. Pressed on whether he believes previous budgets ignored this sector of society, Mr McKay replied, “I’m not saying they were ignored, I’m saying that this budget focuses directly on them”.
He agrees however, that this section of society has been ignored for long enough.
Mr McKay was pleased to note a shift in rhetoric when it came to discussing low income persons and those on social benefits. “Over the past years I heard ministers speaking about persons on social benefits as being lazy, as if they choose to be on social benefits”.
He said that the majority of persons on non-contributable social benefits do not have a choice. There are a number of reasons they would be on such benefits including illness, social problems and work-related accidents.
Turning directly to the 2016 Caritas report, that had sparked much debate about persons in poverty, he said that the aim of the study was to identify a line, in terms of income, where persons cannot live decently with any wage below it.
Mr Portelli asked: “Caritas deals with these people directly. Can you paint us a picture of who are these people who are so desperate that they need our help?”
“Caritas has direct contact with these people, and they knock on our door every day. We just launched a service together with the Ministry for Family and Social Solidarity and the Alfred Mizzi Foundation, where we opened a shelter for persons with particular problems.
“The poverty situation is not the same as it is on elsewhere in Europe, where there are people begging in the street. People in Malta face problems, including those related to housing issues and come for temporary shelter as they don’t have a roof to sleep under. There are also situations where they cannot pay rent”.
Given that Malta has a very high level of employment, he was asked how those on benefits cannot find work.
“The reality is that there are people who have substance addictions, foreigners among us who had high expectations in terms of type of employment and ended up unemployed. There are those who genuinely cannot find work for diverse reasons. And here is where the state needs to intervene”.
He said that the majority of issues he has seen are not because of the economic situation, but are instead related to personal and family issues.
Mr Mckay did highlight certain disappointments with the budget. One such problem relates to food prices, another with the explosion in rent rates. “We need to be careful so that the help being given is enough for those to cope with the market”.
Mr Portelli pressed the interviewee, on whether the financial increases in the budget could result in persons no longer, statistically, be classed as being at risk of poverty, although in reality would still be.
“If the aid being given by the state is much less than what these people need in order to cope with market prices, then they will remain in the statistics,” said Mr McKay, who also stressed that policymakers must understand the need for these people to be given what they deserve.
He was asked whether the increase in toiletries and personal care would eliminate the good done through the budget, and whether he believes an energy tariff cut was needed.
In response, Mr McKay said: “It’s a political decision. As Caritas we believe that if one has to burden persons on social benefits and those on the minimum wage, they should not do so on essential items such as toiletries”. The idea that one balances out the other could be a true,” said Mr McKay.
Turning to rents, he does not believe that enough was done in the budget to alleviate the problem. He mentioned that many of those who come to Caritas face problems regarding rent costs. He again stressed that this budget must be seen as just being the first step. “The state must look at this problem in further detail”.
He mentioned a pilot project involving 100 families will see the drawing up of a seven-year contract for low-income families renting property from private individuals, expressing his interest as the results from this project.
Turning to a budgetary measure on transport, where those turning 18 would be able to utilise public transport for free, Mr McKay agreed that extending this to those in poverty should be considered in future budgets.
He was also asked about the living wage, explaining that he is in favour of it, but also believes the minimum wage needs to be discussed.
Mr McKay also avoided saying whether this year’s budget has failed the Caritas poverty test.
Nationalist MPs Paula Mifsud Bonnici, Robert Cutajar, Stephen Spiteri previously indicated that the Caritas poverty report found Maltese families with two children and one parent, on the minimum wage, require €11,446 to get by, an €800 increase when compared to 3.5 years ago. They argued that the budget will not make up this difference. They also called it a “cosmetic budget”
Asked whether he agrees with the PN, that the budget failed the Caritas test, Mr McKay would not say.
“I will not enter into political controversy,” he said, while adding that through the budget the voice of those who are at risk of poverty is being heard. “But it is only the first step. This, for me, is the criteria for this budget and I cannot say whether it has failed or passed the Caritas test.”