Living in Dignity in the XXIst Century
Poverty and Inequalities in Societies of Human Rights: the paradox of democracies
Council of Europe Publishing, 2013, ISBN 978‑92‑871‑7567‑0
The guide provides a critical review of the current situation on the question of poverty, analyzing inequality, poverty and impoverishment through the prism of human rights, democracy and redistributive policies. It also explores paths for a renewed strategy to fight poverty, based on better use of common goods and the sharing of social responsibilities.
The guide emphasizes the need to go beyond conventional definitions of poverty. It highlights several limitations of the conventional approaches. For instance, it points out that they focus on individual rather than collective problems and, when defining poverty, only take into consideration revenues generated. The guide proposes a relational perspective which takes on board different interactions amongst all relevant social players. The publication also advocates the need to share social responsibilities amongst societal actors. More specifically it calls upon all stakeholders in society to be actively involved in combating poverty. Alongside poverty, the guidebook considers the processes of impoverishment, erosion of employment and economic security and of the downward trend of the standard of living of an ever larger number of Europeans, including the middle classes.
It views poverty as a violation of Human Rights. The publication stresses that rights are interdependent. For example, it notes that the infringement of social rights often leads to a breach of civil and political rights and vice-versa. The guide also highlights the limits of the universality of rights. It clearly illustrates the obstacles that certain members of society – for instance migrants – face in accessing rights.
The publication also provides an in-depth analysis of poverty through a democracy lens. Amongst other issues examined, it highlights the difficulty that people experiencing poverty face in making their voices heard. The guide raises the issue of how can people living in poverty make their voices heard in polarised societies, where more than 40% of assets and 25% of revenues are held by 10% of the population? The guide also conducts an analysis on the negative impact of defensive strategies. It points out that such strategies often lead to a “war among the poor” as well as reinforcing racism, xenophobia and discrimination. It suggests that such policies lead to increased levels of stigmatisation and criminalization of the people experiencing poverty, thus threatening social cohesion.
The guide also provides an overview on how material, human and financial resources are used and wasted in today’s societies. About 30% of food produced in Europe goes to waste and approximately 930 thousand homes remain unoccupied, in the United Kingdom only. The adoption of more responsible and participatory approaches in the production, consumption and management of both material goods and community spaces can help to address deprivation and social exclusion. The last chapter on the analysis of the current trends focuses on redistributive policies and their role in reducing or reinforcing inequalities. It also proposes to adopt a new way to approach the concept of progressivity in public finances.
The final part of the guide proposes policy recommendations to combat poverty and inequalities. These take into consideration existing societal relations. Policy recommendations in this section are centred around common goods and shared social responsibility in order to promote the well-being for all.
Six pillars guide the proposals to combat poverty and inequality in the 21st century. Reducing inequalities and ensuring equal access to material and immaterial resources alike form an integral part of the first building block. Specific recommendations are put forth to achieve this. These include ensuring access to quality services – such as education and health – to quality housing, to material commons- such as energy and water- as well as to knowledge and information. Finally, the guide emphasizes the need to provide a legal framework for commons goods and to grant the access to them. Numerous concrete examples are elaborated upon in the guide itself. To home in on one, the guide points out to the Community Land Trust (CLT), as a best practice approach to follow to promote access to housing. Here the properties are a common good and the organization offers housing opportunities to people who do not have the means to own or rent properties of their own. Finally, the Community Land Trust (CLT) claim a solid commitment to open membership, inclusive governance, and direct accountability to the community it serves.
Reducing inequalities and ensuring equal access to financial resources is yet another guiding strategy. Several approaches have been put forth to achieve this. The publication explores the possibility of introducing a basic income for all that would be universal and unconditional. It also stresses the importance of implementing a minimum wage and decent working conditions for all. Other recommendations in the same field include exploring the possibility of developing access to credit as a social right as well as introducing a maximum income gap in labour market incomes to combat rising inequalities.
The third pillar in the guide to combat poverty and inequality seeks to put forward some suggestions to re-establish progressivity into public finances. Amidst the proposals put forth, the guide calls for decreasing the burden of taxation to poor and middle classes thanks to a sounder contribution to public coffers coming from taxation on wealth and from supra-national impositions on financial transactions. Other recommendations in this area include removing the ceiling from social security contributions and reimbursing VAT below an income threshold.
Ensuring universality of rights and non discrimination forms part and parcel of the fourth pillar. The recommendations formulated under it seek to dismantle legal barriers and any other obstacles preventing access to rights. Finally, approaches discussed in the guide on this issue stress the need to develop a widespread network of anti-discrimination observatories and facilitate access to justice.
Reinforcing local democratic processes to ensure the voice of people experiencing poverty has a greater impact on political decisions is the fifth political priority stressed in the guide. For example, the guide provides the Council of Europe’s methodology on Societal Progress Indicators for the Well Being of all (SPIRAL) as a best practice example to ensure participative processes at a local level. More specifically, this methodology stresses the need to involve people from various social groups, including people experiencing poverty, as well as local stakeholders to define common objectives and ensure the well being of all citizens.
The sixth and final strategic guideline homes in the need to better utilize and avoid wasting resources to ensure equal access to all. Proposals suggested on this issue include approaches to promote the use of abandoned resources and the possibility of putting a tax on waste.
The policy recommendations to combat poverty, inequalities and wasted resources elaborated upon in the guide will be discussed and developed upon during a major European Conference. It will take place at the Council of Europe, in Strasbourg on 21-22 February 2013.