The Czech Republic has been a democratic country for twenty years and an EU member state for six. Although it still faces social problems, the situation is improving and the country is in a relatively good situation compared to older member states. EURACTIV.cz reports on the country's efforts to fight poverty.
Only 9% of Czech citizens are at risk of poverty – the lowest rate in the EU.
According to national experts, this low poverty rate comes from protective measures inherited from the communist era.
''These measures were introduced in the period before 1989 and are nowadays blended together with liberal instruments,'' says Mirka Wildmanová from the Department of Public Economy at Masaryk University in Brno.
Recently, the Quality of Life Index, published by International Living magazine, concluded that the Czech Republic is the 24th best country to live in. As the cost of living falls, the former communist state even outperformed the UK, provoking fury in the British media.
Czechs feel standards of living are improving
According to a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Research Centre (CVVM) at the end of 2009, 45% of Czech citizens think that the standard of living in the country has improved since 1989.
On the opposite side, only 14% of people believe that living conditions were better under communism. One third of elderly people fall under the latter category.
The poll also revealed that many Czechs saw an improvement in access to goods and services over the last 20 years (76%), as well as cultural life (61%). A little less than half believe transport services have improved (43%).
On the other hand, corruption is still perceived as an issue: 80% of Czechs consider it a problem. Unemployment, social security and health care are also negatively perceived.
The Czech health service is based on a public insurance system. It faces many difficulties, such as long waiting periods for specific surgeries, varying availability or quality of medical help from region to region, and a lack of paramedical personnel.
Patients also tend to overly rely on medicine. To limit wasteful behaviour, the centre-right government introduced a symbolic ''regulatory charge'' on 1 January 2008. These charges range from €1.20 for a prescription to €3.60 for using emergency services.
The law also introduced a limit of €200 on patient expenses per year. These measures triggered a heated public debate. In comparison, an average Czech family still spends twice as little money on health services as a typical German family.
As a share of revenue, the health expenditure of an average Czech average family resembles that of a Western one. The fraction spent on food is smaller than the one on rent.
The average salary in the Czech Republic is now €1,030, which constitutes a 5.2% rise compared with last year. This increase could be partly explained by structural influences, such as collective redundancies of low-wage workers.
On a long-term basis, teachers, nurses and scientists are underpaid. A starting teacher salary in an elementary school is €570 per month, not a lot more than a cleaning lady's income. Teachers reach their maximum salary level after 32 years in the profession – they then get around €931 (almost the average Czech salary).
Nurses get around €870 a month and the valorisation scheme is very slow. ''Low salaries and the lack of paramedical personnel do not stimulate the wage policy of the organisations,'' Ji?í ?iha?, economic manager of Motol hospital in Prague, told the Czech Press Agency.
Physicians fare better: they get €1,867 on average. However, this is still far below the European average and the situation faced by Czech scientists is one of the worst in the EU. Nowadays, subsidies for science and research only account for 1.54% of GDP. In the negotiations for the 'Europe 2020' strategy, the Czech government agreed to the annual goal of spending 3% of GDP on research.
The minimum wage in the Czech Republic is €320 per month. Although the situation of Czech pensioners is not rosy – €401 a month on average – this is better than in other Central and East European countries.
Pension system reform
One of the most problematic issues is the need to reform the pension system. Due to the ageing population, the current system is unsustainable. In a few decades time, more than 40% of the Czech population will be over 65 years old.
''We currently have to succeed in pension reform and make every generation responsible for its own retirement. Because of the malfunction of the current system, this generation will be dependent on their children,'' stressed Wildmanová of Masaryk University.
In recent years, the Czech Republic has introduced a range of new measures related to social security, but has never reached a political consensus on pension reform. ''Since the country has been in the EU, the Czech Republic has adopted many laws concerning individuals’ responsibilities. We have a new social security law, a material shortage law, sectional measures on retirement insurance and an employment policy,'' Wildmanová explained.
'Europe 2020' strategy could help
Due to the economic crisis, the Czech Republic is suffering from an increasing unemployment rate, which currently stands at 9.7%.
In the course of discussions on the 'Europe 2020' strategy, the Czech European affairs department pushed for realistic targets (EURACTIV 15/04/10).
According to the ministry, supporting growth and competitiveness will help to resolve other problems that the EU is facing.
''Poverty will be automatically reduced by fulfilling other objectives of the strategy,'' says Richard Kadl?ák from the government's European Policies Coordination Department.
''The strategy aims to ensure economic growth, competitiveness and higher standards of living. It will incite the member states to do something, which is always helpful and never harmful,'' said Št?pánka Filipová, who works at the Czech Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.
''Of course, it is too early to speak about it. It will be endorsed at the earliest in June, maybe in October,'' Filipová added.
''Structural funding is now helping in the field of employment. However, after 2013, we expect problems which could only be resolved by an active employment policy,'' said Wildmanová.
''Through Europe 2020, the EU can set up unified criteria for employment policy and establish uniform methods regarding the risk of poverty, which could be valuable,'' she added.