Austerity measures and public spending cuts are making life worse for the poorest members of society, whose plight is being "systematically ignored" by national and EU policymakers, according to anti-poverty campaigners.
"It is somehow indicative that despite the commitment to try to have a strategy to reduce poverty, we're still a long way from turning those nice words into reality," said Fintan Farrell, director of the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN), after the release of a report yesterday (23 February) on the policy responses to the crisis.
According to EAPN's report, more accurate and up-to-date information on poverty and social exclusion is needed in order to properly assess the social consequences of the ongoing economic crisis, as well as the effects of political decisions being made by national governments across Europe.
The findings of the report are based on the results of a survey that was carried out last year with contributions from groups in 17 countries as well as six pan-European NGOs.
"The social impact [of the crisis] is being systematically under-assessed and ignored," reads the report, which accuses member states of failing to carry out social impact assessments of their recovery programmes.
Farrell told EURACTIV that "the official data on poverty and social exclusion usually comes through about two years behind the actual time of collection".
He believes that the lack of up-to-date information on poverty is one of the reasons why national and European politicians often pay more attention to other indicators, such as economic growth (GDP) and employment.
The latest survey on European housing conditions, dated 2009, pointed to a degradation of the situation across the bloc's 27 member states. One person in six lives in an overcrowded dwelling, revealed EU statistical office Eurostat yesterday.
According to Eurostat, of the EU 27's total population, 18% live in an overcrowded dwelling, while 16% live in a dwelling where a leaking roof or damp are perceived as a problem, 7% consider their dwelling to be too dark, 4% have no indoor flushing toilet and 3% have no bath or shower.
In its report, EAPN also cites research findings from different countries which indicate that poverty has been getting worse, both in terms of the number of people affected, and in terms of the extent of their financial difficulties.
According to the EAPN director, the fact that national governments and the EU are not monitoring poverty and exclusion more closely might also be linked with a lack of political will to properly address these problems.
Austerity measures 'penalise the poor'
EAPN and other anti-poverty activists are very concerned about the political decisions being made at both European and national level in response to the current financial climate, including cuts to public spending and other so-called 'austerity measures'.
"We know from the evidence collected by our members about the reality on the ground that the situation is getting worse," said Farrell, adding that austerity measures have serious and negative impact on the poorest and more vulnerable members of society.
Across the EU, groups and NGOs that provide help to people affected by poverty have seen increasing levels of demand for their services – such as food banks, advice centres and shelters for the homeless.
Farrell is highly critical of Europe's politicians, who he says have failed to learn the lessons from the crisis and in many cases are pursuing policies that will make things worse for the weakest members of society.
"The policy solutions that are promoted now are really storing up trouble for the future," said Farrell. "They won't tackle the root causes of the crisis, such as increasing levels of inequality, a lack of trust in public institutions, and a growing gap between citizens and politicians."
Strong message to the Spring Council
Farrell hopes that the latest report of EAPN will help to stimulate political debate ahead of next month's European Council, when the leaders of the 27 national governments will discuss their responses to the crisis and the implementation of the 'Europe 2020' strategy, which was agreed last year.
"It's very important for them to realise that there is an absolutely growing gap between the rhetoric of the Europe 2020 strategy and its nice words about reducing poverty, and the realities of the policies being pursued," said the Irishman.
EAPN is putting pressure on the European Commission and EU member states to carry out social impact assessments of their policies and budgetary decisions, including the crisis and recovery packages being developed by national governments.
EAPN is calling on the EU and its member states to give priority to protecting the needs of the most vulnerable groups, notably by maintaining decent levels of social protection, preserving public services, and reinforcing their health and education systems.
"The problem is not that we have scarce resources," said Farrell. "The problem is that we've managed the system so that the resources go increasingly into the hands of a few, so we need to think about how we can manage the abundance that we have in a more equitable and social way."
As for the Commission's proposals for setting up a 'European Platform Against Poverty and Social Exclusion', Farrell insisted that the EU must build on the initiatives that have been developed since the year 2000, and not try to start again from zero.
In particular, the EAPN is demanding that member states should be obliged to promote the participation of people experiencing poverty and social exclusion, and to produce regular national strategic reports on social protection and social inclusion.