The European Commission recently warned of rising poverty in some EU member states. While statistics suggest that the Czech Republic has one of the lowest poverty rates in Europe, experts say it may have a big problem in the making. Close to a million of the country’s over ten million inhabitants are now living just above the poverty line and 400,000 are living in extreme poverty. In the first nine months of this year the state has already paid out 40 percent more in social support than it did in 2012. I spoke to Michael Stannett, the head of the Salvation Army in the Czech Republic about the growing threat of poverty for thousands of Czechs.
“Poverty is always a threat to a percentage of the population and I do not have the figures to say whether that poverty is growing, I think what is perceivable is that, similarly to what you see in the UK, those that are in poverty are in greater poverty and those that are in wealth are in greater wealth so the gap is certainly growing. I would say the number of people at risk of slipping below the poverty line is also growing. Therefore there will be a knock-on effect that some people at the risk level will be slipping into the poverty zone.”
Who is most at risk?
“Well, I would say that the people most at risk are single-parent families or families that have no regular husband-and-wife partnership that is stable.”
What about pensioners? Apparently most of them are living just above the poverty line.
“Yes, that is true. That would be another big target area, where there is a lot of concern. People living on low pensions and having to pay high rents for their accommodation and those on the lowest level of pensions will find it very difficult to be able to be accommodated in normal, regular pensioner homes.”
I understand that for instance in Britain the Red Cross is to launch a winter food aid plan to help the poor –the first since the Second World War – is there anything like that happening in this country?
“There is a food distribution program via the food bank, which is surplus foods from supermarkets and EU places like that and not just the Salvation Army but other non-governmental organizations are involved in distributing that food. Most of our churches are involved in food distribution programs within the areas that they are based. We do have our emergency winter program which aids people who are actually on the street to be able to find emergency accommodation and receive clothing, winter clothing particularly, and extra food parcels for people who are living in slums or in tenement buildings and things like that.”
Do you feel that the government is addressing the problem adequately in view of the poverty rise? There is no social housing in this country, which makes it that much harder…
“I have to say about the winter program the towns always act as if they are surprised that winter is coming and that accommodation –or extra accommodation –is going to be necessary. So we do feel like we are re-inventing the wheel every time there is snow on the ground. So I have to say no, I do not think the municipalities, particularly in Prague, are doing enough. On the other hand, the Czech government has just initiated a more coordinated and cohesive plan for dealing with homelessness throughout the Czech Republic which is the first time there has been a nation-wide plan. For us to criticize that plan at the moment would be difficult because the Salvation Army was one of the major contributors towards that plan – so in that respect we would have to hold our reservations on whether they are doing enough because we have to see how this plan is going to be implemented.”