Report on poverty and social exclusion

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Four years of economic growth and declining unemployment have only slightly reduced poverty and social exclusion in France. This is the conclusion of an official report, issued in March 2002, that also highlights the fact that these phenomena have affected specific social groups and areas of the country more than others.

The National Poverty and Social Exclusion Observatory (Observatoire national de la pauvreté et de l'exclusion sociale) issued its second report in March 2002 (Le rapport de l'Observatoire, La documentation française, 2002). In addition to the report, the observatory also issued a second volume featuring the various statistics-based studies, summary papers, research etc used to draft it (Les travaux de l'Observatoire, La documentation française, 2002).

The Observatory came into being under the anti-exclusion legislation adopted on 29 July 1998 (FR9806116F). It is mandated to gather comprehensive data on poverty, unstable and/or low-paid employment and social exclusion, and also to commission and publish the findings of studies, research projects and assessment reports. The Observatory is made up of the following three sections: representatives of the state-run bodies in charge of such matters; researchers; and individuals with rehabilitation and anti-exclusion experience. This forum thus brings together three different approaches to the same problem. It is also a venue where common issues can be identified. In light of the serious problems posed by potential exclusion in French society, the organisation's reports have been given widespread coverage in the press. The three main issues dealt with in the 2001-2 report are highlighted below.

Economic recovery and poverty

Between the second half of 1997 and the first half of 2001, France experienced a period of economic growth that outstripped the European Union average. Between March 1997 and March 2001 - the dates on which annual employment surveys were carried out - 1.5 million jobs were created (an increase of 7%) and the number of unemployed people - according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) definition - fell by 820,000 (down 26%), bringing the overall unemployment rate down from 12.3% to 8.8%. A significant drop in the number of people living in poverty might therefore be expected. This did in fact occur but on a reduced scale and only much later than the start of the actual economic recovery.

Consequently, the number of people claiming 'guaranteed minimum income' (Revenu minimum d'insertion, RMI) benefit, which provides a guaranteed minimum income for people aged over 25, continued to climb until 1999 and only began to drop in 2000 (by 5.3%), at which time the number of recipients stood at 1.9 million. When indicators based on living conditions are used to assess poverty, a definite improvement can be identified in terms of consumption capacity and default on rent and housing costs. However, other indicators such as the 'comprehensive index' show only slight improvement. Lastly, levels of monetary poverty on all definitions remained unchanged between 1997 and 2000. Those households deemed monetarily poor are those where income per consumption unit is below 40%, 50% or 60% of the national median income, depending on the definition.

There are many reasons underlying this disappointing performance. As far as the monetary poverty issue is concerned, the relative nature of the phenomenon must be considered. Indeed, if the income of poor households does not increase more quickly than the overall average income, the poverty rate remains constant. This is what occurred. However, this does not mean that the purchasing power of poor households did not rise. As far as other indicators are concerned, it is important to note that those individuals least marginalised from the labour market – a proportion of whom were not poor in the first place – were the first to feel the benefits of renewed job creation. In addition, a major proportion of jobs created were either unstable or part time. These types of employment do not systematically enable people to break the poverty cycle and as a result, France is experiencing the development of the 'working poor' phenomenon. The Observatory's report draws the following conclusion: gainful employment remains the best protection against poverty, although this protection is undermined when jobs are unstable or low-paid.

Major regional disparities

The report features detailed data on poverty in the various 'employment regions'. France is divided into 348 employment regions, which are defined as commuting areas between home and workplace. These regions are considered to be local labour markets. The results show both major disparities between the various employment regions and a complex range of reasons underlying these gaps. The percentage of poor people varies on a scale of one to seven or one to eight depending on the various available sources of data on household income. Major disparities also exist in terms of long-term unemployment, housing conditions and access to healthcare. However, the various indicator maps do not match. Consequently, categories of 'poverty area' must be identified that take into account the multi-faceted root causes (eg the exodus from rural areas, industrial areas in decline, suburbs of major urban areas, or the attraction – for poor people - of the more clement climes of southern regions).

Lack of access to fundamental social rights

The report contains in-depth studies of specific disparities, which highlight the issue of the recognition of fundamental social rights. A case in point is asylum-seekers, whose numbers have increased sharply, outstripping the capacity of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and state authorities to deal with them. The number of people in severe poverty and even illegal, undocumented situations has increased to such an extent that the report contains a 'wake-up call' on this looming crisis.

A ground-breaking statistical survey was conducted in 2001 on a representative sample of homeless people, a group for which only incomplete data had previously existed. Once again, the results highlighted the disparities between the different paths leading to severe types of exclusion. Some over-riding root causes did, however, come to light. These include disadvantaged social backgrounds, family break-up, long-term unemployment and deteriorating physical and mental health. Men between the ages of 20 and 40 are over-represented in this group. This is probably due to the fact that they have less access than other groups to family and welfare support systems.

Commentary

In France, 20 years of large-scale unemployment have given rise to types of social exclusion that are a major departure from traditional-type marginalisation. The characteristic of the 'new poor' is the wide range of social categories affected and the vast number of different ways in which people become poor. This new form of poverty has triggered a number of almost irreversible phenomena, such as the breaking of family, professional and social ties. This explains why the positive effects of four years of economic growth and a significant drop in unemployment have taken some time to trickle down to poverty levels and then only on a minimal basis. State-run bodies and NGOs are providing insufficient yet increasing assistance for the poor. However, this remains a very marginal issue for the industrial relations system, which covers only those who have been in employment – even in unstable jobs – on a regular basis. (Jacques Freyssinet, IRES)

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