Struggling to pay the bills in a wealthy nation
Despite its wealth, Switzerland has 1 million people – nearly one-in-eight inhabitants – whose incomes qualify them as poor or at risk of poverty. Swiss social policy expert Carlo Knöpfel explains who these people are, and how they got into this situation.
The Swiss economy grew at a modest rate of 1.5% in 2016, yet the number of people among Switzerland’s 8.3 million population who are at risk of poverty is rising because they earn too little or barely enough to keep up with expenses. That is according to the Catholic charity organization Caritas Internationalis, which chose the “right to work” as the theme for its annual forum in January.
Around 530,000 people in Switzerland – 6.6% of the population – earn below the poverty line, according to Caritas. The Swiss Conference for Social Welfare puts the poverty line at CHF2,600 ($2,602) for an individual and CHF4,900 for a family of four people (2015 figures). Another 500,000 people are in a financially precarious situation, which places them at risk of poverty.
Demographically, those who are most at risk are the unemployed and people in training; workers with low salaries (the working poor); families with more than two children; and single-parent families. In Switzerland, one-seventh of all single-parent families is impoverished.
A recentFederal Statistical Office reportfound that poverty affected 73,000 children, or one in 20.
Knöpfel, a professor of social policy and social work at the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland FHNW, spoke to swissinfo.ch about how a nation’s political and social policies can affect poverty, one of his key areas of interest.
swissinfo.ch: Switzerland is one of the world’s richest nations but an estimated 530,000 people live in poverty and another 500,000 are at risk of poverty. Do you see this as a paradox?
Carlo Knöpfel: Poverty is a relative concept and you cannot compare the poor in Switzerland with those in South Sudan. In Switzerland, a person or family is considered poor when they do not reach a certain income [see infobox]. Being poor does not mean, however, that you have little money. Often it means being faced with other problems: not being able to hold down a job or not being able to find one; unhealthy or unfavourable housing conditions; or health issues or debts.
swissinfo.ch: Which groups are most at risk?
C.K.: People with few professional qualifications, those with psychiatric problems and single-parent families. Those at the most risk of poverty, however, are children living in poor households.
swissinfo.ch: What can make a person fall into poverty?
C.K.: Nowadays, a job is not enough – a job does not protect you from poverty. A quarter of the 530,000 people who lie in poverty in Switzerland are working. Nevertheless, the income is not enough for them to support themselves. A divorce, an addiction or a chronic illness also can have repercussions.
swissinfo.ch: What can be done to relieve poverty in Switzerland?
C.K.: Invest in training the lesser skilled, and increase the number of jobs for the low skilled. The economy follows its own logic to be competitive. However, we can give it some direction. Not with taxes and bans, but with incentives. For example, we could create a system in which a company wanting a state mandate should offer a certain number of jobs to the low skilled. It has already been done successfully for apprenticeships, so why not for low skilled jobs, too?
swissinfo.ch: What worries you the most about what is going on now?
C.K.: The widespread dismantling of the welfare state. It is not that incomes are necessarily being cut, but there is a tendency to reduce benefits. This creates fresh poverty risk and more reliance on welfare benefits. It is a vicious circle, which leads to poverty.
Translated from Italian by Isobel Leybold-Johnson, swissinfo.ch