“With extreme poverty on the rise, I call on all member states to address poverty systematically and comprehensively, including by pursuing fiscal policies that are firmly based on human rights”, said today the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, on the occasion of this year’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.
“‘No poverty’ features as the first of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Yet, despite this world-wide commitment and the encouraging advances made over decades, there is no room for complacency. Since 2021, extreme poverty has been on the rise again world-wide.
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly reversed progress made on poverty reduction in Europe, exacerbating pre-existing and structural deficiencies in social protection systems. In 2022, the war in Ukraine, high energy prices, trade disruptions and rising inflation are destabilising an already weakened system, pushing more and more families into poverty.
According to a report by the European Investment Bank, the impact of rising energy and food prices is particularly dire in countries in Central and South Eastern Europe, where a relatively larger share of the population is at risk of poverty, while savings rates and incomes tend to be lower overall. But poverty is growing everywhere in Europe. In July 2022, Germany’s main foodbank reported that well over two million persons had sought assistance, as 600,000 more people now live below the poverty line than before the pandemic. According to the UK poverty report, the country was facing a “tide in poverty” in 2021. This trend is being exacerbated by an inflation rate of around 10% as of summer 2022, which is hitting a growing number of low-income families, pushing them deeper into destitution. In Spain, tens of thousands of people rely on emergency food aid and demand for social housing has sharply increased.
Poverty is a multifaceted social scourge that undermines the exercise of all human rights by wiping out the basic ability to live in dignity. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, no social phenomenon is as comprehensive in its assault on human rights as poverty. A person who lives in poverty faces a range of interdependent deprivations, including precarious housing, inadequate food, hazardous working conditions, limited access to education and health care, lack of political power and unequal access to justice.
Poverty is fundamentally caused by structural inequalities that arise from an unequal distribution and redistribution of income and wealth, reflecting the widening gap between rich and poor. Indeed, while according to WHO/World Bank estimates, over half a billion people were pushed into extreme poverty due to rising health costs in 2021, the world’s richest ten billionaires doubled their wealth. It is essential, therefore, that member states respond to growing income and wealth inequalities with targeted support measures aimed at those most exposed to poverty.
Women, especially older women, systematically experience poverty at higher rates than men, as they often carry the main responsibility for household expenses and experience persistent gender pay gaps that translate into gender pension gaps later in life. Alarmingly, one in four children growing up in Europe is at risk of poverty, malnutrition and social exclusion, with serious lifelong implications ranging from stunted physical growth to lasting health effects, lower educational achievement and lifelong job insecurity, making poverty a hereditary threat that is hard to escape.
Especially high poverty rates are also observed among other groups across Europe, including persons with disabilities, migrants, and persons belonging to racialised communities.
At a time when war and high energy prices are significantly raising the cost of living everywhere, European governments have sought to relieve the growing pressure on households through multibillion euro packages, often containing tax cuts, price caps and lump-sum allowances. While these measures may have the advantage of being swift, they typically do not prioritise those most exposed, and they make no long-term impact in addressing poverty.
Lasting steps towards the eradication of poverty require a shift in the narrative from charity to human rights-based entitlement and the insulation of social assistance programmes from short-term political pressures. I call on member states to develop sound social protection floors for the most vulnerable, prioritise their investment in early childhood support and education, and address the significant non-take-up of rights by simplifying application processes and involving those affected in the design of schemes.
Systematic human rights screenings of member states’ budgets and fiscal policies can both improve the accountability and transparency of economic policy processes, and help governments identify areas where public funds are being lost, including through tax evasion. Human rights-based fiscal policies can also help find suitable alternatives to austerity, thereby preventing social crises, and assist in reversing inequality by alleviating the disproportionate burden borne by people with low income in some countries.
Breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, including through equitable fiscal policies and the sustainable resourcing of comprehensive and rights-based poverty eradication programmes, must become a top priority for member states.”