09 fevereiro 2016

Coisas que, infelizmente, se acabam por saber sobre as famílias em tempos de crise económica


Para perceber como alguns recentes anos nos transformaram num país de miseráveis aos olhos de outros e de famílias miseráveis realmente, convém ler este trabalho "Families in the economic crisis: Changes in policy measures in the EU". Um resumo sobre o que afectou Portugal está nos seguintes parágrafos:

- Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Slovenia have been hit particularly hard by the crisis;

- Universal support was thus, at least in 2011, still the preferred approach over targeted help in all Member States except Portugal, Italy, Poland, Slovenia and Croatia.

-  In fact, in Finland, large families report a greater ability to make ends meet than the low poverty rate would suggest. In the other three countries – Portugal, Slovenia and the UK – and across family types, people assess their situation subjectively worse than the objective poverty rate suggests. This is especially the case for lone-parent households. Lone parents rely heavily on the employment income of one adult without a fallback option in times of economic crisis, which might increase insecurity for adults in these households.

-  family policy pathways since 2010 are largely characterised by austerity – in Portugal and Slovenia, the effects of the crisis being a major driver; in the UK, more the policy preferences of the current government.

- What can also be seen is that austerity measures dominantly concern cash benefits and tax benefits for families, while leave policies remain less affected by cutbacks (with the exception of Slovenia), as does childcare (with the exception of the UK). Leave and childcare policies have also been largely spared from cutbacks in Portugal.

- Child/family cash benefits and tax reliefs - Portugal:
Cash benefits for families have changed along two main lines: increased selectivity, with eligibility criteria focusing on support for families with very low income, and cutbacks in the amounts of benefit. Tax relief measures for families were also reduced.

Regarding the main cash benefit for families with children (Abono de Família), there has been a decrease in the number of beneficiaries, in the amounts of benefit received by families, and in public expenditure. Due to changes in eligibility criteria, since 2010 nearly half a million families with children have lost access to the main family benefit. The drop in the number of beneficiaries was very sharp between 2010 and 2011, when the main changes were introduced (two of the five income levels were abolished, thereby increasing selectivity; there were also changes in eligibility criteria). The decrease in beneficiaries has continued, although at a slower rate, between 2011 and 2013. The decrease in the amount of benefit was also considerable. The uprating of 25% for the two lower income levels was abolished in 2010.13 The additional benefit for children below the age of one year, for lone-parent families and for families with more than one child below the age of three was retained.

The Minimum Income benefit (Rendimento Social de Inserção, RSI) is the cash benefit which has the strongest impact on the reduction of extreme poverty in Portugal. Between 2010 and 2013 there was a sharp drop (-40%) in state expenditure on minimum income benefits following changes in eligibility criteria, reductions in the amounts of benefit and the abolition of certain uprating mechanisms.

Since 2010, eligibility criteria for entitlement to advanced alimony payments (Fundo de Garantia de Alimentos) for children and young people living in lone-parent families has been more restricted:
monthly income must be below €419.22 (previously €485). The number of beneficiaries receiving advanced alimony payments increased from 13,294 in 2010 to 17,915 in 2012.

However, eligibility criteria have become more restrictive and the amounts of benefit have been reduced, even for children in families entitled to minimum income benefits. On the other hand, the new measures of economic support (uprating for unemployed couples) only reach a small number of disadvantaged families. There has been a sharp drop both in the number of beneficiaries entitled to family and minimum income benefits and in the amounts of benefit received.

Due to tighter eligibility criteria, the number of women receiving the pre-natal family benefit decreased from 124,644 in 2009 to 89,248 in 2011.

Fiscal policy measures have increased taxation of families since 2011. In 2013, eligibility rules for tax deduction for each dependent child were tightened. Only poor families (with an annual income below €7,000) are exempted from ceilings on specific tax allowances. The measure also targets lone parents and large families.

- There have been only minor cutbacks and no changes to leave entitlements since 2010. In 2013, the Minister of Solidarity and Social Security announced the government’s intention to use European funds to promote female part-time work (paid as full time work) in order to allow parents to have more time to raise their children. The intention was presented as a measure to promote fertility, since births continue to decrease. No specific measures had been proposed or approved by the end of 2014.

- Recent data show that coverage rates for childcare continued to increase between 2011 and 2013: from 37% to 46% for care services for children under the age of three; and from 87% to 91% for children between three and five years. Several factors may explain this trend. Changes in legislation mean more children are allowed in a classroom and some investment (especially in pre-school settings) already planned has not been halted. Added to that, low birth rates and high rates of emigration over the last three years have diminished the number of children in the country.

- To support those in need in times of crisis, the government introduced one main policy instrument, the Social Emergency Programme (PES), in 2011. The main objective of the programme was to give individuals and families in extreme poverty support in kind. Measures include the setting-up of a network of third-sector canteens and the introduction of free breakfast at school for children from disadvantaged families. At the end of 2013 there were 811 canteens at national level serving approximately 49,000 meals per day subsidised by the state. The budget for the PES (2011–2014) was €400 million.

Since 2010, eligibility criteria for entitlement to advanced alimony payments (Fundo de Garantia de Alimentos) for children and young people living in lone-parent families has been made more restrictive; monthly income now has to be below €419.22 (previously €485). The number of beneficiaries receiving advanced alimony payments increased from 13,294 in 2010 to 17,915 in 2012.

Unemployment benefits underwent three major changes after the signing of the memorandum with the Troika (17 May 2011). First, there were changes in eligibility criteria and in the duration and amounts of benefit. Second, social protection in case of unemployment was extended to independent workers. Third, a temporary uprating of 10% was introduced for couples with children where both were unemployed and for unemployed lone parents. In both cases entitlement is dependent on the level of income and lone parents cannot receive alimony payments. In 2012 entitlement to unemployment benefits became easier (12 months of contributions instead of 15 months). At the same time, however, the cash benefit was cut back. The maximum amount of benefit has dropped from €1,258 per month to €1,048, and after six months the benefit is reduced by 10%. The minimum duration of benefit has dropped from nine to five months and the maximum duration from 38 to 26 months. In 2013, the government also introduced a compulsory social security contribution of 6% to be deducted from all unemployment benefits. Only couples and lone parents entitled to the 10% uprating are exempted from this contribution. It is important to add that in 2013 over half of all unemployed people were not entitled to any kind of unemployment benefit.

- The Minimum Income Benefit (RSI) has undergone severe cuts during the crisis. Between 2010 and 2012, some 46,342 fewer families received the benefit (representing a drop of 22%). In 2012, the total number of beneficiaries represented approximately 4% of the Portuguese population, 1% down from 5% in 2010. The negative trend continued in 2013 due to new and stricter eligibility criteria introduced in 2012. For instance, the permitted value of real-estate holdings of the beneficiary and their household must be below €25,153 instead of the €100,613 maximum allowed in 2010. Policy experts and social workers underline the impact of these developments in terms of the increased risk of poverty and the growing number of children suffering material deprivation. They also highlight the efforts of non-governmental and local institutions to compensate for this decline in the economic support of highly vulnerable families. According to one social worker:
There have been drastic cuts in RSI. This had a major impact on people’s lives. We see some fairly elderly people who can’t get jobs and receive a very small amount of income support and of course they need the canteen; we also have younger people receiving income support because they lost their jobs, but it’s also very little so they come to us; then we have those no longer entitled to income support who need the canteen in order to survive. 

Despite these severe cuts, all stakeholders see the RSI as the most important welfare benefit for providing support to disadvantaged families. A representative of the Parents’ Association at the Ramada Secondary School said: ‘RSI (Income Support) is incredibly important! If it wasn’t for this measure, a lot of people would be out on the street. In many cases it is the family’s only income, even if it is much less than it was before.’

Furthermore, beneficiaries indicate that this benefit has a major impact on their lives. In many cases, it is the only form of family subsistence, and families rely on this money to pay all their bills: ‘If they make any more cuts I can’t deal with anything anymore. We received our income support this month and went to pay the electricity, water and grocery bills … all we we’re left with was a €10 note … we know that we’ll be eating bread for the rest of the month’.

- In Portugal, the active role of the social sector and civil society has been crucial in not only providing stronger support to those locked into poverty, but also for finding solutions to the new needs of families as a result of the economic and social crisis.

The Ramada Parish Community Centre (Centro Comunitário Paroquial da Ramada, CCPR), is a publicly funded non-profit NGO established in in Lisbon in 1997. It provides a variety of forms of support: a daycare centre for elderly people, home help, temporary shelter for children at risk, a canteen, a psychological and legal advice centre and volunteer services.

As the crisis grew, the CCPR broadened the range of services it provides. A charity shop on its premises sells clothes at low prices. A technical helpdesk was set up to assist the unemployed in finding work, as was a subsidised canteen. There are quite a large number and variety of users of this canteen (it serves 83 users, providing 106 meals a day, and 212 at weekends).22 It provides support to all types of family (extended, nuclear, lone-parent or individuals) regardless of any state benefits they may be receiving. The CCPR also distributes food parcels every two weeks.

Another form of assistance this institution started providing was help in looking for a job, by publicising jobs advertised in newspapers and by preparing CVs for users of the canteen who are unemployed or whose unemployment benefit is almost at an end.

The Ramada Parish Council (Junta de Freguesia da Ramada), has sought to develop a series of measures to support the community. A legal aid and counselling service has been established. A Parish Support Committee operates in a network of institutions and organisations in the Odivelas municipal district. These include the Social Security agency, the CCPR, Parents’ Associations, the Committee for the Protection of Minors, the Portuguese AIDS League, and the Portuguese Cerebral Palsy Association. Its main aim is to find solutions for people and families who need social and economic support.

All interviewed families express satisfaction with the support they receive in the form of social canteens. Some indicate that it is the only way they get to have a hot meal and without it they would continue to live in extreme poverty: ‘When the crisis came I lost my job... I am a single mother aged 36; it was because of financial difficulties that I have to ask for food for myself and my son here in the social canteen.’

The ‘Odivelas in my Heart’ movement (Movimento Odivelas no Coração, MOC) originally arose as part of a political campaign for the office of mayor. Following its rejection by the national parliament, in 2004 the movement became an association of residents who wanted to contribute to the well-being of disadvantaged families in the Odivelas district. To this end it made an agreement with the Food Bank Against Hunger (Banco Alimentar Contra a Fome) and now works with several publicly funded nonprofit NGOs (whether or not they are tied to the Church), the Dona Estefânia hospital, parish councils, and the Odivelas Town Hall. Currently, the MOC is providing support to 161 families – a total of 480 people, including 16 babies (aged up to 24 months), 111 children (aged two to 12) and 33 elderly parishioners (over 65). MOC’s income comes from membership fees, food drives, leisure and cultural activities, and both corporate and individual donations. Volunteers carry out all its work.

In order to compensate for gaps in state support, local institutions seek first of all to create networks and partnerships. They also organise the collection of goods in kind (food, clothes) and money. As one interviewee said:
Help doesn’t come from above; it comes from those who are side-by-side. The lack of response in our area makes us feel powerless; it has to be done in partnership … We have a partnership with a Caritas project, that is the Solidarity Church … they’ve already given €700 – three rents … Caritas is a big help … We also have partnerships with the Banco Alimentar [Food bank], which assists us … and ‘Entreajuda’ [a mutual help organisation] helps us a great deal with furniture and appliances. 

As interviewees from local NGOs and municipal councils underline, the high rates of unemployment and the difficulty of accessing economic support has increased the pressure on local and nongovernmental institutions to provide support for these families.

- The main aim of policies in times of crisis has been to target very low income families by maintaining cash benefits only for these families (increased selectivity); to introduce new measures such as providing support in kind through third-sector social canteens; and to uprate benefits for low income families with children where both parents are unemployed. However, economic support for very low income families has also been cut back; eligibility criteria have become more restrictive and the amounts of benefit have been reduced, even for children in families entitled to minimum income benefits. The new measures of economic support (uprating for unemployed couples) only reach a low number of disadvantaged families. There has been a sharp drop both in the number of beneficiaries entitled to family and minimum income benefits and in the amounts of benefit received.

These developments have had an overall negative impact on disadvantaged families and children (Wall et al, 2014). Major indicators of family and child well-being – poverty, material deprivation, work intensity, fertility, school drop-out and expenditure – reveal that the difficult life and work conditions of families, especially of disadvantaged families, have increased over the last few years.

The social sector and civil society has played a crucial role in finding ways of providing greater support for families locked into ongoing poverty, and for families newly in need as a result of the economic and social crisis. However, the social sector and civil society are increasingly struggling to meet the daily demands for help they receive. The number of applications for support has increased so much that local support institutions have started to turn some applications down; hence, waiting lists have grown. Some of the measures introduced, such as food distribution, provide an important source of support in times of crisis, preventing stigma and social exclusion. However, often they do not compensate for the overall retrenchment in support for vulnerable families, as they are not social rights in the way that, say, cash benefits are.

- Adequate income is key
The study highlights the importance of providing minimum income support to disadvantaged families. In many Member States, the level of income support is below the at-risk-of-poverty threshold, and Italy and Greece lack a comprehensive national scheme altogether. The lack of adequate income support schemes has forced many families to enter the shadow economy.

In Portugal, income support is seen as the most important welfare benefit for providing support to disadvantaged families. However, it may no longer fulfil this role because of reductions in the amount of benefit and the fact that many families are excluded from receiving it.

- The canteens and food banks in Portugal, introduced within the ‘Social emergency programme’ of 2011, are an in-kind measure specifically targeted at disadvantaged families. However, the eligibility criteria have been tightened and the level of benefit has been reduced. The measure now reaches only a small number of disadvantaged families. There has been a sharp drop both in the number of beneficiaries entitled to family and minimum income benefits and in the amounts of benefit received.

An important feature of social support systems is, therefore, that they quickly adapt to changing family structures, and focus less on the legal status of families.

(imagem da AIM)

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