How does it feel to be poor in a rich country like Switzerland, relying on welfare? An ongoing row over the amount of aid payments has put the spotlight on welfare standards and ways to improve the current system.
Life has not been kind to Maria C.* (real name withheld). Growing up in a farmer’s village outside Zurich, she is a child of an immigrant mother who barely spoke the local language. When her Swiss father died, the three-year old was sent away to a home until she was 11 and considered unfit for regular school.
“We were poor and I went through hell being teased by other children,” says the 50-year old woman with dark eyes and hair. Looking sad and serious at the same time, Maria settles down on the second-hand sofa, her arthritic left knee slightly propped up.
It is a neatly furnished two-room flat on the outskirts of the town of Biel. She pours mint tea, lights a roll-up cigarette, framed pictures and photographs looking down from the walls.
“Being poor and living on welfare in my case means living with just over CHF1,000 ($1,120) a month. This is not easy, even though I’ve always lived very modestly. I’ve never really been away on holiday,” she says.
Maria lost her last job as a social worker in a centre for former drug addicts and homeless people, following an accident. Pains in her already weak knee made it impossible to hold on to her part-time employment.
She has been on welfare since August 2012 - and got by with little jobs.
Poverty and welfare
Due to Switzerland’s federal system which gives cantons wide-ranging autonomy, there are no unified definitions for poverty and welfare standards.
According to the Federal Statistics Office, 580,000 people in Switzerland live below the official poverty line of CHF2,250 per month for a single person and CHF4,050 for a household with two adults and two children younger than 14.
This represents about 7.5% of the population of more than eight million.
Latest figures available show that just over 250,000 people benefit from welfare payments – an average of 3.1%. of the total population over the past few years.
There are considerable difference between urban and rural areas. Single parents make up the largest affected group, followed by single adults and people with no vocational qualifications.
The recommended minimum social welfare payment is meant to cover for food, hygiene, transport and communication.
Maria is one of more than 250,000 people who live on welfare in Switzerland. That is just over 3% of the population - a figure that has more than doubled since the 1990s, but has remained stable over the past few years.
“Not everybody who lives at a subsistence level applies for welfare payouts,” confirms Dorothee Guggisberg, director of the Conference for Social Welfare, a lobby group campaigning for benefits.
Depending on the method of calculation, 7-8% of the population in Switzerland is considered poor. Comparisons with other countries are almost impossible as the data is too varied and different.
Guggisberg says even in Switzerland differences are considerable from urban to rural regions and the welfare and social security authorities do not use the same criteria to define poverty.
“Switzerland certainly has a good social security system and it can afford it. This is crucial for a stable society. Having many people who live below the breadline can be threat.”
The association has set guidelines for the 26 cantons and nearly 2,400 communes which are in charge of welfare issues, as there’s no nationwide law which applies.
The Swiss constitution says a citizen should have the means to live a dignified life.
Basket of goods
Based on a so-called “basket of goods” of the lowest 10% income earners, the association recommends a monthly welfare payment of CHF986 to cover basic needs.
“The Swiss constitution says a citizen should have the means to live a dignified life. The money provided covers for food, hygiene, transport and communication – things necessary in everyday life,” Guggisberg says.
However it does not include the costs of an apartment or a room and mandatory health insurance, she points out. It is no mean feat to set a social poverty level standard which goes beyond providing basic aid, but aims at integration.
“Nobody in Switzerland has to sleep under bridges. There are no poverty ghettos which you’d better stay away from at night,” she says.
Row in communes
A dispute over welfare standards last year came to a head after a court ruled against a local authority which wanted to stop payment to a beneficiary.
As a result at least four communes have decided to leave the pressure group, which is made up of representatives of state and private welfare associations and institutions.
Under pressure from public spending cuts in communes and accompanied by big headlines in the media, the association responded by announcing a series of reforms. Guggisberg pledges to take the criticism on board.
“There is always potential for improvement,” she says. “The basis of calculation of welfare is up for a review after ten years. We have to see whether it has to be adapted to take into account other demands.”
One of the harshest criticisms of the welfare association and current state involvement comes from the Zurich-based Liberal Institute.
The think-tank’s director, Pierre Bessard, last December launched a full-on attack in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper.
He described the Swiss welfare system as a “step back for civil society” and called for the privatisation and decentralisation of the scheme, which he considers too generous.
“The current system encourages a freeloader mentality and puts too much strain on taxpayers,” he says. Certain pressure groups are trying to extend the definition of poverty, setting rules that are a disincentive for welfare beneficiaries, consolidating their dependence of state aid, according to Bessard.
“Local charities and communities could work more efficiently,” he summed up.
Work and training
Economist and author Rudolf Strahm is also critical of the welfare system, but far from supporting Bessard.
“Lack of vocational education and training is the major risk factor of becoming poor, especially for young people and those with immigration backgrounds,“ he says. “Low-skilled people are three times more likely to need welfare than those who finished an apprenticeship.”
As for single parents they are often faced with insufficient childcare facilities, says Strahm, a former Social Democratic parliamentarian and champion of the dual education system which combines schooling and on-the-job training.
But Strahm also slams the current professional training of social workers. He says students are taught to focus on fitting their clients into the welfare system instead of boosting efforts to integrate them into the workforce.
“Slackers seem to get away too easily,” he says.
Maria is used to fight for her right to education. In her forties she qualified for training at a college for social workers and had a job in the sector for several years.
She has little more than contempt for Bossard’s fundamental criticism of the welfare system.
“Those neo-liberal ideas are hardly more than a poor joke at the expense of the destitute. They need scapegoats for the rich who get richer,” Maria says.
“The system here has worn me out,” she adds. “It made me feel desperate, I was considering suicide and could hardly think straight.”
She’s leaving the welfare scheme and turning her back on Biel. Her apartment has been sold and as she’s being evicted, she’s leaving Switzerland for a while - off to Portugal, the country of her mother.
There is a strong sense of solidarity with the poor, begging is tolerated in Portugal, she says. “Should I ever end up homeless, then it won’t be in Switzerland.”