Poor miss out on Christmas cheer
While most Swiss settle down to enjoy Christmas with all the trimmings, others will be queuing for hot soup and a bed for the night.
According to charities, one person in eight lives in poverty in Switzerland and will find little cheer during the festive season.
“Poverty is a scandal in a country as rich as ours,” Jürg Krummenacher, chairman of the Swiss branch of Caritas, told swissinfo.
According to the charity, 300,000 people sought welfare assistance from regional authorities last year.
“And yet almost half the people who are entitled to benefits do not claim them,” said Caroline Regamey from a church welfare organisation in Lausanne.
Caritas estimates that 850,000 people in Switzerland are living below the bread line.
Frances Trezavant, spokeswoman for Swiss Workers’ Aid, says the main reasons for the present situation are “an inadequate minimum wage, unemployment and lack of training opportunities”.
“Unemployment among young people is particularly worrying,” she added.
What Trezavant describes as a “time bomb” is illustrated by figures from the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco).
Last month 6.4 per cent of those aged 20-24 were out of work – almost double the national average.
Caritas says the main groups struggling to cope are the self-employed, single parents and large families.
“In our society having children carries the risk of poverty, because children are very expensive to bring up,” said Krummenacher.
The poverty line in Switzerland is set at SFr2,450 ($2,140) for a single person and SFr4,550 for a family with two children.
“If after national insurance and tax deductions an individual’s or family’s income is below these figures, they are reckoned to be poor,” explained Eric Crettaz, a researcher at the Federal Statistics Office.
Recent statistics on the so-called “working poor” show that the situation is not improving.
Their numbers have risen for the first time in four years, with more than seven per cent of the workforce – 231,000 people – unable to make ends meet.
“In 2003 the working poor accounted for 44 per cent of all people living in poverty,” added Crettaz.
Many of them are foreign nationals, who often lack university degrees or whose qualifications are not recognised in Switzerland.
Poverty in Switzerland is no respecter of age and blights the lives of thousands of children.
A Seco study estimates that between 200,000 and 250,000 young people are being brought up in poverty.
“The number of poor people is growing, as confirmed by an increase in applications for social welfare,” said Krummenacher.
In 2003 the number of people in receipt of benefits rose by ten per cent.
Krummenacher says the best way to combat what the World Health Organization describes as “the most deadly illness in the world” is to do more to help families.
“The priority is to reduce family poverty, for example by introducing additional benefits at a national level and passing a federal law to increase child allowances,” said the director of Caritas.
Swiss Workers’ Aid agrees, saying charitable organisations cannot be expected to perform miracles.
“We cannot solve all the problems on our own, because poverty is a political as well as an economic issue,” said Frances Trezavant.
swissinfo, Luigi Jorio
Caritas estimates that 850,000 people live in poverty in Switzerland.
The percentage of the urban population seeking social assistance in 2003 ranged from 6.5% in Basel to 1.3% in Lugano.
Italian-speaking Ticino, with 12.6%, is the region with the highest number of working poor.
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