Poverty is one of the biggest problems at the moment in Rotterdam. Lately, poverty has increased even more. In certain neighbourhoods over 35 % of the people live around the poverty line and around 50.000 households do not have enough money to come around properly. Behind many front doors live children who cannot have a proper warm meal every day or cannot get enough clothes. So, with the municipal elections coming up in a few days, we asked two prominent parties in the Netherlands and Rotterdam what they think of this problem and what needs to be done in the next few years.
The first interview is with Lorenzo Essoussi, member and candidate of the CDA (Christian Democrats). He is 24 years old and has almost finished his study European and International law at Tilburg University.
Do you think that people themselves are responsible for their poverty?
I think there are two categories of people. There are people who have just got their job and are struggling to come around and there are people who do not get the maximum out of their lives. That is why it is important to look at every individual separately.
In your election program there is spoken about an activating poverty policy, can you explain this?
The essence of this policy is to get a job for someone who has got a benefit, because work is the fastest way to generate more money and to get rid of poverty.
In Rotterdam there are many job offers while simultaneously there are many people without a job. What is going wrong?
It is right that at the moment there are many open vacancies. The main problem we are facing is that a lot of unemployed people do not have the right skills and educations for these vacancies. That is why we advocate a whole life of learning. You are never too old to learn something and get another job. Specifically, we want a vocational school for adults, so that they can easily switch to another job.
In your election program you speak about the assistance from the state as a social safety net. However, many people having this assistance are often very poor. Should this form of aid not be higher?
I think there two things are very important. The first thing is that people who just cannot work have got higher incomes from the state which is often a proper income. The second thing is that people who have got the lowest form of assistance have a right to a lot of surcharges. In total this is not a lot, but I think that it is unwise to minimise the gap between the working people and the unemployed people, which would be paid by the taxpayer.
In your election program you advocate a certain policy for some people who are dependent on payments. The essence of this policy is that the state pays the rent and other fixed costs and this person gets his money minus these costs. Will people have enough money with this policy?
This should be the case but we want to prevent for the fact that some people fill gaps by making other debts. If people do not pay the rent or the bill for electricity, it happens that people are deported from their homes. The idea is that we control the fixed costs and from this point we want people to pay off their debts.
The CDA pleads for an increase in the poverty budget. Could you illustrate for which purpose this money is used?
In every neighbourhood in Rotterdam we have certain neighbourhood teams that are focused on helping families and households with problems. These teams also often visit households with debts and poverty. All these teams have a budget to solve the worst financial problems in these households, you could think of a broken washing machine in a family with children. In this way we prevent bigger financial problems by helping in an early stage.
You also want work to bring up more. How is the CDA going to fix this?
At the moment the CDA is part of the government and we want to introduce a flat tax, which is also partly integrated in the coalition agreement. This simply means that we lower the tax on labour and in this way it becomes more interesting to work for people with a benefit.
The CDA has taken party in the municipal government in Rotterdam over the last four years. Can you give me a few measures that you took in this time to combat poverty?
We have invested in aid for people who have very big debts. Also we have made an agreement last summer that there will not be a higher decrease on the remission of the waste charges. Furthermore, we have increased the financial support for the poor senior citizens and for households with young children. This measure was one-off and we want to continue this. Finally, we have made an agreement which says that we invest more in debt service for the poor.
The administration of the last four years, in which you took part, has also economised a lot on poverty policy. This was approximately 15 million a year. In the period 2014 – 2016, when you were in this administration, the number of people around the poverty line in Rotterdam has increased from 20 % to 25 %, while the economy is doing well. Can you explain the reason for this?
Rotterdam has always been a poor city compared to other cities like Utrecht and Amsterdam. We have a lot of social housing. This means that we attract people from surrounding communities where there is not enough social housing. Admittedly, the welfare has increased, but this has not been case for all citizens, and certainly not in the first part of the period.
There are people who say that we should buy off the debts of young people who have made stupid decisions. Why is this a bad plan do you think?
Often we see that people who have had a lot of debts can fall back in poverty quickly. So this is only a temporary solution. We want to focus on driving back the debts by cooperation with, for example, the electricity company. When this company sees that there is bill that has not been paid, we immediately want to take action. Apart from that, we want to focus on educating the youth about money, debts and financial problems. We want to teach them about this, which is a much more effective approach than just paying the debts for people.
Apart from poverty, there are many other big problems in the city. What is, according to you, the biggest problem in Rotterdam we are facing now? What might be a solution for this?
In my opinion, the biggest problem is the housing market, because our city is very popular to live in. This means that getting an affordable house in Rotterdam is very hard. To solve this, we want to build more houses. The houses should be especially focussed on the middle class, because right now we are having too much social housing, even more than we need. Another problem we are working on now, is that there are many students in Rotterdam, but they leave when they graduate. We want to keep these students in our city when they are graduated.
For the city we want to build more student homes in cooperation with the housing companies.
The CDA did not manage to get the financial gift for students in the coalition agreement. Why should students vote CDA next Wednesday for Rotterdam and with the nationwide elections?
We wanted to keep the financial gift for students, which has not happened. In spite of this, we managed to halve the money paid by the students in the first year. For the city we want to build more student homes in cooperation with the housing companies. We want to stimulate them to house more students. Additionally, we want to make it possible to let students live near each other with appropriate facilities in this area.
For the second interview, we discussed the issues concerning poverty with Kevin van Eikeren, who is a member of the Labour Party (PvdA). He is 31 years old and he studied Sociology at the Erasmus University. After working in the commercial business for a while, he decided to join the Labour Party after a vacancy opened up.
The Labour Party did not take part in the Rotterdam municipality during the last four years. Moreover, the poverty rate has risen since the previous municipality elections. If the Labour Party would take place in the municipality, how will you change the policies concerning poverty?
The current policy concerning the management of debt should change. At the Labour Party, we think that the main reason of the poverty in Rotterdam is the huge amount of debt people are in. By providing professional help concerning the financial situation, we think we can solve the core of this problem. The present debt counselling process is very confusing, as there is not a single person who helps one through the entire process: People are continuously redirected, which makes the task of helping these people more difficult. Furthermore, the budget for these centres at which people can be helped has decreased over the years, which caused the forced closure of these authorities. We think that it is necessary that the government acts hands-on instead of patiently waiting for the poverty problems to solve themselves. There are many tools which the government can use, for example the information tax authorities possess about the financial situation of these people. In addition, we think it is important that high school students get educated about the financial matters they have to take care of as soon as they turn 18, like the health insurance contributions they have to make. In this way, we might be able to prevent the development of debt due to lack of information about these things. Also, we would like to experiment with the government buying the debts of the youth, so that no one refrains from studying due to financial circumstances and everyone has the same opportunities.
What does the Labour Party think about the income gap between the working and the unemployed?
We want the working people to feel appreciated and thus we advocate for higher wage. However, we think there should be an increase on the nationwide wealth tax and a decrease on the labour tax. In the past, the revenues generated from these taxes were almost equal, but now, we see that the revenues from labour tax are almost twice as high as the revenues from wealth tax. We think this is unfair, because “the heaviest burdens should rest on the strongest shoulders”. The level of social security is high enough, but we think the wage of workers should be higher.
The heaviest burdens should rest on the strongest shoulders.
What do you think about a basic income for all citizens of Rotterdam?
We are very open to experiment with the concept of a basic income. We would like to collaborate with the Erasmus University to perform research on the best way to introduce such a basic income. We think that experiments with a basic income in different neighbourhoods might give some serious insight in how to shape this concept.
What will the Labour Party do about the child poverty in Rotterdam?
Currently, 1 out of 4 children lives in poverty in Rotterdam. It is important for the children to get enough food. Without a sufficient amount of food, children are not able to concentrate in school. We therefore think it is a good idea to introduce food programmes that basically provide these children with the meals they are currently missing out on. Also, we would like to introduce a programme that provides all children with a bike. Children who currently live in poverty, do not have money for public transport, nor for a bike. In many cases, the distance is just too far to walk, so it is important that these children get a bike. Furthermore, we would like to expand the budget parents get to buy their children necessities. In the current system, certain amounts of money must be spent on certain products. However, we think this is situation dependent, and therefore we support a more elastic system.
What is your party going to do about the so called ‘working poor’, people that work but still live in serious poverty?
The main solution to this problem is providing financial benefits for people who earn less than a certain amount of money per year. During the past couple of years, the remission of waste disposal levy for the working poor has decreased to only 50%. We think it should go back to 100%, because in that way we can really help the working poor. The benefits for the richer citizens were minimal compared to what has been taken away from the poor.
Can you expand on your slogan: ‘Rotterdam is owned by everyone’?
Some population groups are currently being neglected by society. Because of the stigma some of these groups face, it is crucial that people do not feel left out. Everyone who lives in Rotterdam, is a Rotterdammer. It does not matter where you come from. This is the core of how we want to solve problems: We want to take away any burdens that prevent people from not feeling connected to the city and to the other citizens. Discrimination and inequality should be brought to a halt, so that all the people have equal opportunities here in Rotterdam.
What is the biggest problem that Rotterdam is facing at the moment?
The high level of poverty that is still present in Rotterdam. This problem threatens the bright future of Rotterdam, and therefore, it is crucial that we try to handle the poverty as well as possible.
Why should students vote for the Labour Party?
We want to reverse the decision made about the ‘basisbeurs’, which is a programme that gave students a fixed amount of money each month. We want to do this, because we think it is important that students get the opportunity and freedom to do things besides their study. In this way, students can develop other skills than studying, which is valuable in today’s society. Furthermore, we see that people decide not to study anymore because of the loan they have taken out. The Labour Party is the only party that looks at your total life, instead of favouring people in certain phases in their lives, like the students or the elderly. We develop our election program by assuming that people are, in principle, good (and thus not lazy/negative). Moreover, we find the feasibility of our program a very critical factor as well.
The interviews were held in Dutch and translated by the authors of this article.