Social accommodation targets - Michael Falzon
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Social accommodation targets - Michael Falzon

An analysis of the latest employment data of the USA, featured in The Guardian last Saturday, stated that “High employment rates gloss over a ‘much more complicated story’ of stagnant wages and vanishing mid-level jobs”. The situation is one where many people, though being in employment, live from pay cheque to pay cheque and where the “US economy is now dominated by high-skill, high-wage jobs and low-skill, low-wage jobs”.

In my humble opinion, this kind of economic recovery is one which creates the conditions for gross social inequalities, the brunt of which is borne by those now known as the working poor.

This is a situation this government wants to avoid at all costs. This is why we have used the Budget surplus, created by sound economic management, to redistribute the wealth generated by our economy.

We chose prosperity over austerity and began by increasing the basic state pension each year for the last four years, which had not happened in the previous 25 years.

We also increased the minimum wage and introduced a mechanism whereby it will not take another 27 years before it is reviewed upwards and will, in fact, now be reviewed every four years. Likewise, this year, for the first time in 23 years, we raised the children’s allowance for all families with a gross income of up to €20,000. It is expected that 24,600 children will benefit from this increase, which will rise by a maximum of €96 per child every year, costing the country an estimated €2 million more per year.

All these measures, combined with the introduction of free childcare, the tapering of benefits and in-work benefits, enabled us to make huge and significant inroads in our country’s commitment to eradicate poverty.

The numbers speak for themselves.

Those at risk of poverty or social exclusion dropped by 17 per cent, or 16,000, between 2013 and 2017. Thus, the percentage of the total population at risk of poverty or social exclusion decreased from 24 per cent in 2013 (based on 2012 data) to 19.2 per cent in 2017 (based on 2016 data), a net drop of 4.8 per cent.

This government has never shied away from accepting that poverty is a reality and we are directing our resources towards decreasing poverty even further because one cannot have almost one in five of our population being at risk of poverty or social exclusion.

We are striving to see people moving out of dependency and permanency towards independency

I acknowledge, however, that we need to do more and we will do more.

Doing more on this front means we have to have a clear understanding of the situation. The Foundation for Social Welfare Services last November held a seminar in which it shared the results of an internal quantitative and qualitative study it carried out on homelessness between June 2017 and June 2018, with a random sample taken in March 2018.

The foundation professionals are the first port of call for people who end up homeless and have their fingers on the pulse of this segment of our population.

The data of the people who sought the foundation’s help in the third week of March 2018 shows that 227 people sought help because they were homeless at the time.

Of these, 52 per cent were females, 74.8 per cent of the total were single, 10.3 per cent were separated and 11.1 per cent were married. Most were in the 23-34 age group, 33 per cent lived in the North Harbour District and 29 per cent hailed from the South Harbour District.

Overall, 41 per cent were unemployed, 30 per cent were employed and 11 per cent were students.

Sixty per cent of all homeless people were Maltese nationals. The four main causes of homelessness were low income (62.6 per cent), high rents (59.9 per cent), unemployment (47.6 per cent) and family disagreement (32.6 per cent).

Domestic violence also accounted for 10.1 per cent of people who ended up homeless.

The foundation is following up this exercise with a similar one in Gozo, the results of which will be shared with stakeholders there at the end of the month.

This data shows us what kind of situation we are dealing with and on which we can base our policy decisions.

Based on these results and other social realities, we are also increasing efforts to address the issue of affordable and social housing together with homelessness.

I was present for the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the National Development Social Fund and the Housing Authority yesterday, when the project of social housing announced by the Prime Minister earlier last year was sealed.

The MOU defines the €50 million project and identifies 22 sites in 12 localities that will amount to more than 500 housing units. These units will add up to another project, now in the early building stages and increase the social accommodation units to about 1,100.

Last week, we also announced a raft of new and increased benefits on rent for people who cannot afford the rents, which are on a consistent upward trend.

Our vision is to see a bigger increase in social mobility while acknowledging that a number of vulnerable individuals will still need the helping hand of the State.

We are striving to see people moving out of dependency and permanency towards independency.

Michael Falzon is Minister for the Family, Children’s Rights and Social Solidarity.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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