Poverty as a political resource

Instead of introducing new strategies for social protection and reduction of poverty, the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) stopped keeping statistics on the number of citizens unable to satisfy their basic needs and introduced social cards, reducing the number of recipients of financial social assistance by 44,000, Radar weekly writes in its latest issue.

This shows that the government does not see poverty as an outstanding problem but as part of the solution to the growing need for electoral engineering, it said.

In the flood of price increases that never seems to recede (on May 1 the working class was “gifted” with increased excises on fuel, coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol), it is almost certain that the news of an increase in financial social assistance by 229 dinars could not be made to sound less humiliating, the weekly reports.

Nevertheless, it is fascinating that tabloids, with headlines like “New State Assistance Arriving” and variations such as “Here’s who will receive a special supplement” and “Check if you’re on the list,” managed to enhance the humiliation. For example, suppose you are on the list as a minor member of a financially vulnerable family. In that case, the ‘special supplement’ in your case amounts to a mere 69 dinars per month, as minors are entitled to only thirty per cent of the assistance, which now amounts to a maximum of 11,674 dinars, and that’s after the increase. That is the maximum because the financial social assistance is reduced by what a household that qualifies for it earns in a month. There are numerous legal grounds for one to not even get on the list, despite financial difficulties.

The Radar said that, up until three years ago, the state believed that it should have some insight into the results of its social policy, which is why the government Team for Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction kept records of absolute poverty, i.e., of the number of people whose monthly spending is insufficient to meet basic living needs. In 2020, this threshold was 12,695 dinars per month, and 446,000 people in Serbia were below it and, had there been no social benefits (excluding pensions), 9.2 percent of the population would have been in absolute poverty. Based on this data, about 70,000 recipients of cash benefits, these benefits were insufficient to lift them out of absolute poverty in 2020. Meanwhile, the amount of assistance has been increased seven times but still remains one thousand dinars below the then poverty line, while prices have significantly risen, the weekly said.

There is no official data on how this has affected the extent of poverty because the government team was dissolved in 2021, and the Serbian Statistics Office took the position that “there is no longer any need to calculate and publish the rate of absolute poverty,” said the Radar.

UNICEF does not share the Statistics Office’s position that is it unnecessary to monitor absolute poverty since this is precisely the category it highlighted in its last year’s report on the economic impact of the war in Ukraine on the most vulnerable groups in Serbia. Based on available data and economic projections, UNICEF estimated that last year the absolute poverty headcount in Serbia was 824,000 people (almost twice as many as when the state stopped counting them), and that this year the adjusted absolute poverty line will be 17,770 dinars, which will still be beyond the reach of over 800,000 people.

Moreover, said the weekly, monthly income of just 12,000 dinars is enough to disqualify someone from receiving financial social assistance, meaning they also lose some other rights, such as access to the use of food kitchens. And then, if people in this situation are offered even 2,000 dinars for their vote, can anyone really expect them to refuse?

(Radar, 18.05.2024)


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