Some people imagine that in a rich region like the EU no one can be poor or if they are it must be the result of some personal failings or problems. However, this is not the case.
The overall persistent high level of poverty in the EU suggest that poverty is primarily the consequence of the way society is organised and resources are allocated, whether these are financial or other resources such as access to housing, health and social services, education and other economic, social and cultural services.
In times of austerity, some political choices made have deepened poverty and inequalities (cuts in income and services, deregulation of the labour market…).
Indeed, the fact that there are very different levels of poverty in different Member States demonstrates clearly that different approaches to allocating resources and opportunities lead to different outcomes.
The least unequal societies in Europe tend to have the lowest levels of poverty, and to have been less impacted by the crisis. This is primarily because these Governments choose to give priority to ensuring adequate minimum income levels and ensuring good access to services, through the social protection system and through guaranteeing minimum wage levels. They are usually the most effective at redistributing wealth through the tax and other systems. This means that the decisions over how to eradicate poverty in the end are political choices about the kind of society we want.
In terms of individuals, some key factors are seen as making a person more “at risk” of being in poverty such as:
- unemployment or having a poor quality (i.e. low paid or precarious) job as this limits access to a decent income and cuts people off from social networks;
- low levels of education and skills because this limits people’s ability to access decent jobs to develop themselves and participate fully in society;
- the size and type of family i.e. large families and lone parent families tend to be at greater risk of poverty because they have higher costs, lower incomes and more difficulty in gaining well paid employment;
- gender – women are generally at higher risk of poverty than men as they are less likely to be in paid employment, tend to have lower pensions, are more involved in unpaid caring responsibilities and when they are in work, are frequently paid less even for the same job ;
- disability or ill-health because this limits ability to access employment and also leads to increased day to day costs;
- being a member of minority ethnic groups such as the Roma and immigrants/undocumented migrants as they suffer particularly from discrimination and racism and thus have less chance to access employment, often are forced to live in worse physical environments and have poorer access to essential services;
- living in a remote or very disadvantaged community where access to services is worse.
All these factors create additional barriers and difficulties, but should be seen within the overall structural context of how a particular country chooses to distribute wealth and tackle inequality.