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“We in Switzerland have a real poverty problem”

Hugo Fasel says education is key in the fight against poverty Keystone

Switzerland’s first national conference on poverty has highlighted the fact that more needs to be done to combat the phenomenon at home.

In an interview with, Hugo Fasel, director of the Catholic church charity Caritas, says more than a quarter of a million Swiss children live below the poverty line and that education is key to winning the fight.

The conference on November 9 highlighted a problem not typically associated with Switzerland.

Fasel argues that Switzerland’s family policies have fallen behind the Nordic countries and that poverty really shouldn’t be an issue.

A report released by the interior ministry in August called, Global strategies for the fight against poverty in Switzerland, demonstrated that numerous steps had been taken to prevent and combat the phenomenon. Officials said a three-prong political approach was appropriate: improve equality issues, work for better access to job training and the labour market, and fight poverty on the family level. At the poverty conference, we mainly heard from people who have never experienced the problem first-hand. Was the closing statement more than a mere paper tiger?

Hugo Fasel: The closing statement is the start of a process. It’s definitely worth noting that the Swiss government is ready to tackle the topic of poverty.

Up to now, poverty issues were the domain of cantons and municipalities. Now the federal government sees that it needs to take on a coordination and leadership role – especially in the job market.

It’s important that people get a job rather than simply slipping off the market. Every month, 2,000 people lose their unemployment benefits; then they end up on welfare.

This was the first poverty conference. There’s room for improvement, for example, those affected by poverty could be better integrated into the next one. It’s certainly a learning process. Why is poverty even an issue in wealthy Switzerland?

H.F.: For a long time, it wasn’t a topic at all. People didn’t want to talk about the fact that one in ten people in Switzerland is poor. This poverty conference has confirmed that we in Switzerland have a real poverty problem. How does Switzerland cope with poverty in comparison with other countries?

H.F.: International comparisons are extremely difficult. When it comes to family policies, the Nordic countries are quite far ahead of us. Here in Switzerland we have 260,000 children living in poverty. In Nordic nations, a lot more is done for this group. In other areas, it’s even harder to make comparisons. Many people in Switzerland are ashamed to go on welfare. Others abuse the system. Is the system fair?

H.F.: On the whole there is little abuse in Switzerland. The poverty discussion isn’t about initiating new social services, but rather about preventing poverty.

We want to provide youths with apprenticeships rather than welfare so that they’re not poor on account of a low income. Rather than giving families welfare because they have multiple children, we want to increase the benefits per child so that they can get a good education rather than end up in poverty. So education is key in the battle against poverty?

H.F.: Education is one of the central points. Youths without a good degree have a hard time getting a foothold on the job market. Meanwhile, older workers who haven’t benefitted from continuing education are also at a disadvantage because they don’t meet the current market standards. That means further training is also a key point. Poor people often have limited access to new media such as the internet. Is the digital divide also an issue?

H.F.: We’re just starting to address all these questions. Poverty is related to a host of topics, including education, language abilities, number of children and social background.

That means we need to apply various tools to the different causes of poverty. If the parents were poor, then their children will probably be poor, too – perhaps because they don’t have the necessary electronic equipment.

Children without a basic home computer fall behind their peers. That’s an example of a lack of equal opportunity. According to a current study, three per cent of the population owns half of Switzerland’s wealth. In recent times, the gap between Switzerland’s rich and poor has been growing. Why?

H.F.: Indeed, the problem is that the division of wealth in Switzerland is becoming more unfair. Financially, there’s no “need” for poverty in Switzerland. The money is there – it’s just a matter of the distribution.

That’s why we have to push for good enough salaries. A family can’t get by on SFr3,000 ($3,060) a month. We can’t offer jobs that people can’t live from, which means they have to rely on social services. Poverty and old age was a topic that didn’t get much attention at the conference. Why not?

H.F.: At such a large event, some themes always end up in the background. Poverty’s effect on health wasn’t discussed either. We know for sure that poor people don’t live as long, and that also wasn’t mentioned.

That’s why I’m glad that the government plans to have such a conference at least every two years and to look into the unanswered questions in the meantime. As the director of Caritas, I intend to keep the topic afloat.

Born in 1955 in Fribourg, Hugo Fasel has been the director of the charity Caritas Switzerland since October 2008.

Prior to that, the economist and unionist served in the House of Representatives for the Christian Democratic Party from 1991-2008.

A poverty report from every canton. In order to create good policies, the developments need to be known.

Improved measures for integration into the workforce. Today there are a lot of integration tools, but they’re not compatible with each other.

More responsibility from the economic system. Companies should pay living wages.

More social companies. People who’ve been hit by unemployment should be given the chance to work again.

9.3% of Swiss children live in relative poverty, according to the OECD.

12% of pensioners need income support to make ends meet with up to a third of them – 45,000 – still living in poverty despite this assistance.

10% of single parents are “working poor”. Their low pay means they remain in relative poverty despite working a regular working week.

In 2006, 18% of single parents received social benefits.

At the end of March the government published a landmark report on poverty in Switzerland. The document calls for equal opportunities in education, improved re-integration into the job market and measures to combat poverty among families.

The government also recommends that the cantonal and local authorities grant additional welfare payments to families in need.

The Catholic church charity Caritas estimated earlier this year that up to 900,000 people – an estimated 12 per cent of the Swiss population – are in need of social welfare. However the figure was disputed by other organisations and institutions.

Caritas this year presented measures to halve poverty in Switzerland by 2020, as part of the European Year for combating poverty and social exclusion.

(Translated from German by Susan Vogel-Misicka)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR