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One in 11 Swiss lives below poverty line

Brigitte Steimen says poverty has been a taboo subject for decades

(Keystone)

A growing number of Swiss do not earn enough money to pay their monthly bills, a new investigation into the state of poverty in Switzerland shows.

The Swiss Labour Association (SAH), an independent charity with its roots in the trade unions, says one in every eleven Swiss is forced to live below the poverty line. The charity warns that the number is likely to rise still further in the future.

The charity claims the number of working poor - employed people who live below the breadline - has risen to around 530,000 over the past twelve months.

According to federal statistics published in March of last year, those worst affected by the threat of poverty are large families, single parents, workers with only primary education and the self-employed.

A separate study carried out in Zurich last year also revealed that a third of the total population in Switzerland risks joining the ranks of the working poor.

Invisible poverty

Brigitte Steimen, director of the SAH, says the biggest obstacle to tackling poverty in Switzerland is its invisibility.

"You don't really see poverty when you walk the streets and you don't see many beggars, and since being poor is considered shameful, people hide and are very reluctant to ask the state for money," Steimen told swissinfo.

"Switzerland is not a paradise or some exotic country where there is no poverty," she added.

Regina Aeppli, a Swiss parliamentarian who has campaigned for legislation to combat poverty, says Switzerland's international reputation as a wealthy country is at the same time both accurate and misleading.

"Switzerland is of course a very rich country, but the problem is that three per cent of the inhabitants have 90 per cent of the wealth, while the remaining 97 per cent have to share the rest," she said.

"So we have a layer of people who are not able to run their lives on their salaries and who are in need of help from the state," she added.

Taboo subject

Steimen says poverty has been a taboo subject in Switzerland for decades, and people have only recently become aware of the extent of the problem.

"Until about two years ago it was like a taboo, and nobody really talked about it, but people are now more conscious of this problem," explained Steimen. "It has certainly been a challenge to get the message across."

The SAH says 18 per cent of Swiss women - many of whom are single mothers looking after two or more children - currently live beneath the poverty line, earning a monthly salary of less than SFr3,000 ($1,800).

"Women are proportionally more in danger of falling into the poverty trap, so we really want to focus on this issue," added Steimen.

Lobbying government

The SAH is currently lobbying the government to redress the balance between rich and poor by introducing more education and training programmes for young people entering the job market.

"We put millions and millions of Swiss francs into supporting agriculture, for instance," said Steimen, "but we don't invest enough money in education, and I think there definitely needs to be a change."

Steimen admits it is unlikely poverty will ever be fully eradicated, but she is confident that the vicious cycle of low income and debt can be kept under control.

"I think the recent international focus on poverty has really put the issue on the domestic political agenda, and I am optimistic that things will hopefully change for the better in the future."

by Ramsey Zarifeh


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