Poverty and inequality are closely interlinked. People living in poverty are much more likely to be relegated to low-income work, poor housing, and inadequate health care, as well as to experience unemployment and face barriers to lifelong learning. Being born into a low-income household often limits one’s opportunities in life, leading to inferior-quality education and precarious jobs. This can be compounded by other circumstances affecting socio-economic status and future prospects, such as gender, age, and the place a person lives. The societal impact of inequality - perpetuated with each new generation - is considerable and potentially explosive, with trust in public institutions reaching record lows as tensions and polarisation rise. A global survey commissioned by Oxfam found that nearly two-thirds of all respondents think that the existing gap between the rich and the poor needs to be addressed urgently.
Inequality on the rise in Europe
There is no room for complacency even in Europe, a comparatively wealthy continent. Inequality has been on the rise here as well, both among countries and within individual countries. According to the thematic series of papers on inequality in Europe, published by the Council of Europe Development Bank, Europeans in the top 20% of the income distribution have five times more of national income than those in the bottom 20%, with Southern and Central-Eastern Europe being the most unequal regions. While some Central and Eastern European countries have recently started reversing rises in inequality, in Southern Europe equality continues to deteriorate. Moreover, income mobility has declined, with those in the bottom 40% less likely to move out of their socio-economic group than they were in 2008. Those at the bottom have less access to quality education, making it harder to perform in a competitive education-based labour market, and are often more likely to be overburdened with housing costs.
The European Committee of Social Rights underlined in its 2017 Conclusions that the poverty level in Europe is far too high and the measures taken to remedy this fundamental problem are insufficient. In particular, social security benefits (notably in respect of unemployment and old age) are well below the poverty level, even when taking into account social assistance, which remains too low.
Impact of poverty on children and other vulnerable groups
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), social background continues to determine the life chances of people in many countries. Every third child in low-income families lives in an overcrowded household troubled by housing costs, and youth from poorer backgrounds have only an 18% chance of pursuing a career in science. Income inequality for those born in the 1980s is higher than among their parents at the same age, which in turn was higher than for their parents.
Children experience poverty differently than adults. By undermining their development and learning, and increasing their risk of exposure to abuse or neglect, poverty has strong and potentially life-long effects on today’s children. As a result of the economic crisis and austerity measures, the percentage of children at risk of poverty in the European Union increased to 26,9% in 2015. While that figure has decreased in some countries with the subsequent economic recovery, in others it remains very high.
During my recent visit to Albania, I saw a social care institution in Shkodra where children were placed because of their parents’ poverty. This situation is not unique: according to UNICEF, placement of children in institutions, including on grounds of their families’ socio-economic situation, remains high in Central and Eastern European countries.
Poverty also disproportionately affects members of the Roma community. A 2016 European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights survey found that 80% of Roma surveyed were at risk of poverty (compared with an EU average of 17% among the wider population). According to the Regional Roma Survey 2017, although both Roma and their non-Roma neighbors living in close proximity face high levels of severe material deprivation in several non-EU Balkan countries, the gap between these groups remains significant.
In Estonia, I visited a social care home for older persons in Kohtla-Järve where many of the residents did not have the means to live independently elsewhere. I was also told that poverty and social exclusion among older people could prevent them from receiving necessary long-term care at home. While in Greece, I discussed the impact of the economic crisis and austerity measures on access to healthcare and education. Austerity-related measures and policies have not only exacerbated the already severe human consequences of the economic crisis, but have also hit hardest exactly those groups of people who were already vulnerable or marginalised.
Fighting poverty and inequality should be at the heart of all state policies
To counter these nefarious trends, Council of Europe member states should take some decisive steps. First of all, they should collect accurate and reliable data, disaggregated by age and gender, about the impact of poverty on individuals, as a prerequisite for designing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating effective policies. There should be a drive to encourage and empower more people, notably those representing the most marginalised low-income groups, to participate in the relevant policy discussions. Comprehensive, effective and adequately-funded policies should exist at national level to support and promote access to quality healthcare, education, childcare, housing and public infrastructure, as well as access to justice. Governments should give a clear priority to investing in people and areas that have been left behind. There should be an unequivocal commitment to promoting sustainable and inclusive economic growth, not only by governments, but also by other national and international actors. In addition, I strongly encourage those Council of Europe member states which have not yet done so to ratify the revised European Social Charter, the most comprehensive legal instrument in Europe for the protection of social rights.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of debates related to the idea of a universal basic income, which entails that every member of society should unconditionally receive an income sufficient to provide for their basic needs. Such a basic income may either replace or supplement the existing social protection system. The universal basic income approach has never been implemented fully in any country and has yet to be sufficiently tested. In Europe, Finland has tested a supplemental basic income scheme, similar pilots have been carried out elsewhere on a more limited scale, and debates are on-going in several Council of Europe member states.
In his March 2017 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights stated that the universal basic income concept “should not be rejected out of hand on the grounds that it is utopian”, and encouraged further discussion of the policy as a means to alleviate economic insecurity and promote human rights and social justice. He additionally stressed the importance of bringing together the debates on basic income and social protection floors. While acknowledging the practical difficulties attached to such a radical change in social policy, a report of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe suggested that introducing a basic income could guarantee equal opportunities for all more effectively than the existing patchwork of social benefits, service and programmes. As the Commissioner for Human Rights, I intend to contribute to the on-going debates by focusing on their human rights aspects and possible implications of the solutions being considered.
Ending poverty in all its forms everywhere and reducing inequality within and among countries are two of the Sustainable Development Goals set out in the 2030 Development Agenda Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the UN General Assembly on 25 September 2015. By adopting this document, global leaders pledged to address these issues as a matter of urgency, so that the promise of “no one left behind” holds true already for the living generation. This year, as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we must keep our sights on an ambitious but attainable vision: dignity, equality, and well-being for everyone.
 The Framework for Policy Action on Inclusive Growth, May 2018, page 22, §44.
 The survey was carried out by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank (WB) and the European Commission (EC).
 Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, A/HRC/35/26, page 17, §61.
 Social protection floors are nationally defined sets of basic social security guarantees that should ensure - as a minimum - that, over the life cycle, all in need have access to essential health care and to basic income security which together secure effective access to goods and services defined as necessary at the national level. The International Labour Organization issued in 2012 its Social Protection Floors Recommendation.