Maria lives in Portugal. She is 44, her daughter is 13. Divorced and jobless, she used to work as an executive secretary but has been unemployed since 2004. Now she survives on minimal social support of around 280 euros per month.
She said: “Putting food on the table is the hardest thing. I couldn’t without help from my father. My daughter and I drink tap water, since I can still pay for that.
“What gives me the strength to get up in the morning is my daughter sleeping just across from me.
“I hope the future will be better for my daughter. I don’t expect anything for myself any more.”
To say that Maria’s story is one in a million would be wrong. There are more than one hundred million stories like hers in Europe today. The crisis of runaway national debts has been staggering for efforts to beat poverty, but the European Union’s current strategy policy objective is to lift 20 million people out of poverty by 2020.
The EU’s statistical office says there were 79 million poor in Europe in 2007 and that by 2010 there were more than 115 million. It must be more today.
The total EU population is 503 million.
Of the 115 million poor, well over one quarter are children. The number of old people living in poverty is around 20 percent.
The anti-poverty network estimates there are now 120 million Europeans in the grip of poverty, including many people working for salaries well below the average in each country.
As the need for help rises, so does difficulty in meeting demand.
Sérgio Aires, president of the European anti-poverty network (EAPN) told us that Europe is at a critical stage.
Patricia Cardoso, euronews: “In the last two years, the words poverty and social exclusion have disappeared from the majority of political speeches. What should we read into that?”
Sérgio Aires, president of European anti-poverty network (EAPN): “They have disappeared from speeches, but perhaps, even worse, disappeared from policies. One is a reflection of the other. I would say that from 2005 the words ‘poverty’ and ‘social exclusion’ started to become invisible, or at least, to be treated in a way that doesn’t correspond with their priority, plain and simple: eradicating poverty should be on a par with economic development, growth and jobs.”
euronews: “Is the absence of statistics a symptom of European politics?”
Aires: I’d say it is a symptom of the absence of care and of the will to confront the poverty question. It’s an old story. It’s a story of denying that there is poverty in Europe. No one wants poverty in their own backyard.
“So everyone refuses the idea, right from the small community, that only recognises poverty when they want to receive European funds. In that case they say “yes, we have poverty, we need help”. Otherwise they quickly say ‘no’ because, politically, it is difficult to recognise failure, because, poverty is a failure of society’s organisation and the way that society solves its problems.
“Poverty is a denial of human rights. You can’t fight poverty quickly, and get results straightaway. Politics is too immediate and fast. So, few politicians invest or want to invest because the results are not fast enough to recognise their efforts.”
euronews: “Can we say that the European social model has disappeared?”
Aires: “If the European social model hasn’t disappeared yet, it is at risk of doing so, at least at a fundamental level. It’s very serious. The European social model is a contract. I pay my taxes, and I have many rights, but naturally many duties as well. It’s a contract that in some way is under threat. And as it is under threat, everything is at risk, because at that point citizens can start asking: ‘Why am I paying taxes?’
“After all, the European model and the social protection that we have acts as a calming influence on what is happening now.
“If we didn’t have this model, even without reductions and cuts, particularly in the countries worst hit by the crisis, I guarantee that we would probably have a different scenario from the one we have today, which at least has some calm even though there is a lot of despair.”
euronews: “Isn’t it a utopian idea to think that poverty can be eradicated?”
Aires: “I’m not interested in philosophical discussions about what is or what isn’t utopia. I used to say that I liked to put utopia into practice and that’s the case. I don’t know if it’s possible to eradicate poverty or not. I’d like to believe it is, and I do believe it is possible.
“I am absolutely sure that I cannot say to people around me that there is no solution to poverty, that if you are born into it, you will die in it, that nothing can be done about it. It can not be like this. It must not be like this. And it there is proof that it must not be like this.”