The budget for 2021 has been dubbed by many as a social budget, aimed at supporting people get through the troubling Covid-19 period.
The Malta Independent contacted two organisations which work with people in poverty, and those struggling to cope with everyday life, the get their opinions as to how the government’s plan will help, and to see if more should have been included.
Caritas Director Anthony Gatt said that the Budget for 2021 announced on Monday leaves many unanswered questions regarding the future.
Gatt said that the budget takes the country’s future into consideration, however it is also leaves answered questions such as: “What will happen after March? And will this situation be sustainable long-term?”
Although everyone hopes to see the end of this pandemic through a Covid-19 vaccine, and the eventual return to normality, there are still looming questions that need to be answered as to what will happen after.
Gatt agreed that the 2021 budget has a strong social foundation. He said that the budget appears to aim to keep people in employment, especially due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It also has a number of measures to support some vulnerable groups, like the elderly as parents with young children, he said.
“The budget is similar to an emergency response to the current pandemic crisis, which is definitely supporting employment in areas which have been drastically hit.” He added that this is key, because any rise in unemployment will have a cascading effect on the economy and eventually on the welfare of people in society.
“As Caritas, we foresee that the impact of Covid-19 will continue to widen the gap between the rich and the poor. In this sense, the budget being targeted at trying to save jobs was expected,” he said.
Asked if there are any measures in the 2021 budget that the organisation would have added but were not included, Gatt remarked that there are three particular measures.
Firstly, he highlighted that an immediate plan – including what kind of economy the country will be aiming for post March – should be taken into consideration, both in terms of whether the virus is still a problem or not.
“There is an unclear roadmap in terms of where we’ll be heading beyond the crisis, as everyone knows that the government has a limit as to how much support it can provide to those who need it. Therefore, what will happen post March is very important,” he said.
The second essential measure which Caritas would have liked to see relates to education and to incentives for students to remain in school.
“We recommended a measure which involves giving an ‘added benefit’ in return for proof of school attendance to students who come from low social economic contexts and are missing out on compulsory education,” Gatt said.
Gatt remarked that certain students who have a number of a social problems might not value engagement in education as much, thus they would need something to motivate them further.
He said that leaving education early is associated with a multitude of problems such as addiction, promiscuity and criminal involvement. “There is a correlation rather than a causation.”
“Such a measure becomes even more important because, with the current Covid-19 situation, children lose their path more easily.”
Although the government announced a measure which will provide students who are over the age of 16 and who continue with their education with free internet, Gatt emphasised that the measure he is proposing should be aimed at students who are under the age of 16 – students who attend primary and secondary schools.
Speaking on another measure that Caritas would like to see in the future, he mentioned the need to invest in integration programmes for migrants, giving them the possibility to better understand Maltese culture and society, teaching them what they can expect and what might be expected of them.
Gatt explained that the integration for immigrants is not given enough resources or importance.
“After the first three months of Covid-19, the number of homeless foreigners decreased in our streets because of repatriation flights that took them back to their homes.”
He expressed his belief that immigrants are the group in society who is mostly left out, who face constant racism and who are exploited. “In the context of this economic challenge and increase in racism, support integration programmes should be considered and invested in not only for the benefit of the immigrants themselves but also for every member in society,” he said.
The budget is a social one – YMCA
Anthony Camilleri, the YMCA’s Chief Executive Officer, also agrees that the budget is a social one, explaining that ithighlights the government’s concerns on social issues such as human trafficking, racisms, xenophobia and LGTIQ, to mention a few. “Having said that, there are still recommendations and issues which need to be addressed.”
Asked which measures have been of help to the YMCA, Camilleri explained that the organisation is currently collaborating with Housing Authority, in order to prepare and create services for vulnerable people aged 60+, “who sometimes find it more difficult to find assistance, especially when it comes to those who end up with housing difficulties.”
“The Government’s increase in pension and tax adjustments on pensions is surely an incentive which will support them further financially.” Camilleri explained that many who end up homeless find it difficult to overcome such a problem.
He also said that the tax-exemption thresholds with regards to buying property is an additional support to those wanting to buy their own property, “as is the Equity Sharing Scheme, that from our experience has supported several individuals get housing.”
He said that the YMCA has noted an increase in the rate of homelessness over the past 5 years.
“We support the creation of another 1,200 social accommodation apartments that will decrease the number of individuals on the waiting list for social accommodation.” He said that the YMCA still calls for single-bedroom apartment units to be built to cater for the need of single individuals. “We are, on the other hand, recommending that policymakers urgently review the national housing practices, where we have already have seen a huge improvement, and to support further developments of permanent housing and transitional housing.”
With regards to the public consolation on the Youth Policy, YMCA has already been in touch with Agenzija Zghazagh to advocate and continue working on behalf of the young population. “This policy is urgently needed to continue empowering young people.”
Asked what should have been given more importance in the budget, he spoke about families with children under 16 years of age. “We still believe that the minimum salaries are not providing for a decent living whilst housing is still an issue. The increase of €91 COLA on an annual basis to all employees, including those on social benefits and pensioners, does not improve the situation and YMCA is still advocating for these matters to be discussed and taken action upon.”
“The combined amount of the €100 vouchers and €91 COLA does not exceed the COLA given in 2020. The basic minimum wage should be a measure in itself, considering that rent is, on average, a €9,000 expense on a yearly basis and that the average minimum wage of €9,400 does not make sense at all.”
Turning to what the YMCA would want to have added to the budget, he spoke about raising awareness about homelessness.
“We have been advocating and raising awareness about homelessness for over 20 years and we still believe this is a hidden issue. There is not enough awareness and it is not being addressed adequately. We believe that vulnerable people live in a shared housing out of necessity and not choice. In 2018, we had recommended a number of things which have not yet been addressed. These are national statistics on homelessness to be collected on a regular basis; To create a national definition of homelessness in Malta; To narrow the gap between the minimum wage and the rental costs; To introduce funding schemes for national research on homelessness; To review policies regarding shared housing and social benefits capping.”
Another proposal by the YMCA is that the necessary services be created so that young people who commit minor offences are given community work instead of being given prison sentences.
Turning to immigration, the YMCA said that a national psychological response to the need of young refugees and migrants, including children, who bear witness to a larger traumatic impact was absent in the budget.
“With regard to mental health, it is positive that we are seeing the development of a new psychiatric hospital, however we propose that the government issues funds for more local research on the social identity of homelessness, the stigma and discrimination related to it, which leads to psychiatric issues. We also encourage the government to tackle the waiting list for free mental health professional services.”