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Brussels, 16 December 2010

Poverty and Social Exclusion in the EU: state of play and next steps

Frequently asked questions

Why is the fight against poverty a priority among the EU's 2020 objectives and what do Europeans think about poverty?

More than 80 million people in the EU live at risk of poverty and 8% of Europeans have such limited resources that they cannot afford the basics. The situation has worsened with the most vulnerable being hit hardest by the crisis.

The consequences of the recent downturn mean that action to fight poverty and social exclusion is more important than ever before. The EU must do more and more efficiently to provide Europeans with opportunities to secure a better future. This is not only a moral duty, but also an economic necessity and an investment our common future: Europe cannot afford to miss out on an important source of skills, productivity, and knowledge.

A recent Eurobarometer survey, carried out throughout the 27 Member States in autumn 2010, highlighted that 74% of Europeans believe that the EU has an important role to play in the fight against poverty. Nine Europeans out of ten (89%) say that urgent action is needed by their national government to tackle poverty and 53% of Europeans believe that their national governments are primarily responsible for combating poverty. In 2010, the proportion of people holding this belief at the national level ranges from 26% (in France) to 80% in Bulgaria.

76% of Europeans feel that poverty in their country is widespread compared to 73% in 2009. The extent to which poverty is seen as widespread remains very different from country to country and ranges from 33% in Sweden to 96% in Romania.

It is important to note that in both 2009 and 2010, high unemployment and insufficient wages and salaries have been the most widely perceived ‘societal’ explanations by Europeans for poverty, together with insufficient social benefits and pensions and the excessive cost of decent housing, whereas a lack of education, training or skills, as well as ‘inherited’ poverty, addiction and living beyond one’s means are the four most mentioned ‘personal’ reasons behind poverty.

For all these reasons, combating poverty and social exclusion contributes directly to Europe 2020's objectives of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.

What are the EU's competences in the field of poverty?

Combating poverty and social exclusion is primarily a responsibility for Member States. However, EU action in the field is not new and has made a difference.

Since 2000, the EU has helped Member States learn from each other and improve their policies in crucial fields like child poverty or homelessness, through the Social Open Method of Coordination. Many other policies and programmes do contribute. For example the EU provides direct support to those at risk through financial programmes, and has promoted better working conditions or combated discrimination through legislation.

Such cooperation is all the more important as Member States face common challenges, such as child poverty, labour market segmentation, efficiency of social protection systems in a context of strained public budgets.

Yet a more coherent approach is needed and current instruments should be strengthened: the EU is determined to step up efforts, help Member States and key stakeholders learn from each other, and act as a catalyst for reforms.

How can the EU contribute to lifting at least 20 million people out of poverty and exclusion by 2020?

The new headline target adopted in June 2010 acknowledges the complex nature of poverty, as it encompasses three key areas: income poverty, material deprivation and people living in jobless households. These reflect the different faces of poverty across the EU and diversity across Member States.

However, success and progress towards this target will also depend on Member States' action. Beside this common European target, each Member State needs to define its own national target, reflecting the specific situation of their country. This can become a catalyst for national action and ensure that our common objective is really shared across the EU.

Overall, the added value of action at EU level is in developing common EU-wide objectives and approaches that Member States implement by means of national action plans. Meanwhile, EU funding is made available for activities aiming to prevent and combat poverty and social exclusion, for example under the European Social Fund (which represents 10% of the EU's annual budget) and PROGRESS programme (which has a budget of around €100 million per year).

The European Commission also organises regular pan-European meetings to pool ideas and share successful policy approaches, for example through the annual roundtable on poverty and meetings of people experiencing poverty.

What financial resources does the EU have to support the “Platform against Poverty” flagship initiative?

Different programmes contribute to the poverty-reduction objective, either through direct support to those concerned or by building knowledge and cooperation to develop better policies.

The European Social Fund (ESF) co-funds projects tailored to help people who are most vulnerable to poverty, unemployment and social exclusion, enabling them to acquire or adapt their skills. Every year, 5 million unemployed and 1 million people from vulnerable groups benefit from the ESF intervention.

Overall, the ESF has nearly €76 billion to invest between 2007 and 2013 in programmes that could have a direct or indirect impact on reducing poverty and child poverty. More specifically, out of the €76 billion amount to invest, about one-sixth goes to promoting social inclusion. Active labour market policies and the provision of key services such as childcare are still the main instruments. Education also plays a decisive role in giving young people equal opportunities and breaking the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

Some 18% of the ESF’s budget of more than €10 billion a year is earmarked for projects that directly combat social exclusion: helping migrants into the workforce, integrating disadvantaged people and improving equal access to employment. Every year, some 1 million people from vulnerable groups – including migrants, members of ethnic minorities, and disabled people – benefit.

The ESF funding indeed plays an important role in supporting people to get back on track – for example, by helping them to integrate into the labour market. This can involve outreach, guidance, counselling, training, employment support and personalised services, as well as incentives for direct job creation and support for business start-ups.

Many other programmes provide direct support to vulnerable groups or communities, such as the European Microfinance Facility (put in place to provide up to 45,000 micro-loans to unemployed and small entrepreneurs), the EU Food distribution programme for the most deprived persons (reaching out to 13 million European citizens each year), the European Regional Development Fund and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, as well as the Lifelong Learning Programme.

With a total budget of 17 million Euro (complemented by at least 9 million Euro of national co-financing), the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion has financially supported more than 700 projects across the EU.

In addition, programmes such as PROGRESS and the Research Framework programmes support policy cooperation and socio-economic research.

In line with proposals in the 5th Cohesion Report, the Commission is determined to achieve more effective use of EU funding to combat poverty and social exclusion, which include: increasing the share of resources devoted to actions tackling poverty, simplifying access for grassroots' actors, strengthening synergies and complementarities between different programmes.

What exactly is social innovation and how does it contribute to tackling poverty and exclusion?

The Commission proposes to launch a major initiative to promote evidence-based social innovation. This will allow Member States to learn from each others' experience in an important area, such as the effectiveness of social assistance schemes. It will ensure a wider diffusion of knowledge and complement national resources with EU funding.

This initiative will build on past experience of promoting modernisation of Member States’ social policies (through peer-reviews, mutual learning and transfer of best practice), making greater use of scientific methods to test and assess policy innovation.

Social experimentation refers to small scale projects designed to test policy innovations (or reforms) before adopting them more widely. These have been conducted since the 1970s in several countries to evaluate proposed changes in public policies or programmes in areas such as welfare-to-work programmes, homelessness and early child development.

What has the 2010 European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion achieved?

The 2010 European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion has created a strong momentum and has mobilised politicians, stakeholders and citizens.

Throughout the year, thousands of events and initiatives have been organised across Europe, mobilising institutions, administrations, social actors, civil society organisations, media, artists, schools and universities, politicians, experts and ordinary citizens in a campaign for information and awareness raising that has unfolded at EU, national and local level. More than 700 hundred projects have been co-financed across 29 countries.

The EY2010 has, above all, contributed to building an early political momentum and influencing the attitude of political leaders regarding the place of the fight against poverty and social exclusion in the political agenda. This paved the way for the agreement by EU leaders on the first ever poverty reduction target within Europe 2020.

The key messages that have emerged from the EY2010 are now enshrined in a Council declaration endorsed by all Member States. It puts a particular focus on the implementation of the active inclusion strategy, the fight against child poverty and the need to pay particular attention to vulnerable groups and extreme poverty.

The EU aims to build on the drive of the European Year by reflecting the consensus that has emerged on the need to step up efforts, providing a broad framework covering a range of policies, as well as consolidating new partnerships that have emerged during the year.

What about the concrete examples of progress stemming from the European Year?

The European Commission has commissioned an ex post evaluation, which will serve as the basis to a report on the implementation, results and overall assessment of European Year 2010. This report will be submitted to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions by 31 December 2011. In the meantime, a number of early outcomes can already be identified.

The European Year's activities will continue beyond 2010 but we can already see progress at both European and national level. First and foremost, the European Year has helped build close partnerships with social partners, NGOs, foundations and think tanks. The EY2010 has also created a snowball effect by providing "moral support" to many more activities.

Some examples across the different Member States:

  • Europe-wide competition for print, online and audiovisual journalists who report on issues linked to the Year's themes

  • Journalists competition on communicating poverty and social exclusion

  • An art initiative bringing together people experiencing poverty and art and design students around Europe.

  • joint events bringing in cities, regions and civil society with the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee .

At national level, examples include:

  • A Belgian project to help socially excluded people gain a foothold in the labour market through tailored advice and networking

  • A bus tour around Portugal with young artists to raise public awareness of poverty and social exclusion

  • A project in the Netherlands to bring together local partnerships in 60 different communities to develop integrated strategies for tackling social exclusion in their areas

  • An Irish partnership to broadcast the stories of people living in poverty on RTÉ Radio 1, the country's biggest radio station with 1.3 million listeners a week

  • An Austrian training programme for financial advisers to counsel people facing debts and other financial problems

  • A German project to help disadvantaged people with a migrant background to integrate in society by offering them volunteering opportunities in the local community

  • A series of regional seminars in France to highlight the responsibilities of the regional authorities in tackling poverty and take into consideration the diversity of cities and regions

  • A programme in Denmark to help people with mental disabilities find work by training job centre staff in dealing with their specific needs

  • A campaign in Luxembourg to promote a real estate service which helps people access affordable housing in the private sector while guaranteeing rental payments to landlords

  • An Italian supermarket which provides free basic foodstuffs to those in greatest need.

How can we deliver on EU poverty targets in the midst of an economic crisis?

Efforts to combat poverty and recovery strategies can go hand in hand. This was clearly highlighted through the role played by social protection systems, which have been crucial in cushioning the EU's from the worst effects of the crisis, by acting as automatic stabilisers.

Tackling deficits requires careful attention from Member States in balancing their national priorities and a fair sharing of the costs of adjustment, not least with regard to social systems. While responsibility for a big part of social policy lies at national level, the Commission will co-operate, supporting Member States. Difficult conditions should not lessen the broader commitment to solidarity with society's weaker members.

Instead, an eye to the future is needed, for example by pursuing reforms to ensure that social policies are as effective and efficient so that cohesion contributes to future growth.

Stepping up efforts to combat poverty does not necessarily mean spending more. It means shifting reforms towards higher efficiency and social equity, making sure the cost of the crisis is shared fairly across society. The strong focus on social innovation and experimentation should help the EU and Member States identify what works and what does not, putting our resources where they will have most impact.

Combating poverty is not a cost, but a meaningful investment in Europe's future. The EU puts a strong focus on prevention and early intervention, for example by stepping up efforts to tackle child poverty or foster equality in education systems.

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