Speaking at a debate on the creation of a National Strategy to Combat Poverty and Social Exclusion, held on Wednesday night at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, President de Sousa said “we must get this message through to Portuguese society: no one is happy or could be happy pretending there is no poverty around them.”
The president was unequivocal when he said “it is a national disgrace that in 2017 and now in 2018 we are one of the most unequal societies with such a high risk of poverty in Europe”, adding: “I am ashamed.”
He also fervently disagreed with those who believe the answer lies largely in growth to create employment, arguing education, health, housing and mobility must also be taken into account.
“We must urgently add to growth and employment an autonomous national strategy for combating poverty, to eradicate it, and not wait for the day to come when the advances of the economy will reach those who may no longer be among us, or whose poverty is such that any recovery is unfeasible.”
Portugal’s president is known for his hands-on benevolence, and is often seen personally helping the destitute, distributing food for the homeless and comforting those afflicted by tragedy.
In November last year he famously spent a night working with a charity to distribute food among the homeless in several areas of Lisbon, sitting down to talk to those sleeping rough and serving up meals.
At the time he said he hoped to “drastically improve” the situation of all of the country’s homeless by 2023.
Speaking at Wednesday’s debate, de Sousa put foward the example of the Azores, which has recently completed a phase of public consultation on a regional poverty-eradicating strategy project, and queried “is it not time we moved forward with a national strategy?”
In his view, he said, there had been an “undesirable hiatus during the [financial] crisis” and that action must be taken “now, in these years of financial and economic recovery”.
Substantiating his address, the head of state cited figures from the National Statistics Institute (INE), which indicated that in 2016, the poverty risk – measured by the number of people living on a net income of less than € 454 per month – had fallen from 19 percent the previous year to 18.3 percent in 2016.
However, he elaborated, Eurostat, the EU’s statistics office, had calculated the risk of poverty in Portugal as affecting some 2.6 million people, or 25.1 percent of the population in 2016, although by 2017 that number would have fallen to 2.4 million people or 23.3 percent of the population.
In other words, close to a quarter of people in Portugal were still surviving on far less than the minimum national wage, which in 2017 stood at 557 a month (based on 14 payments a year).
According to EU statistics on income and living conditions, “Portugal remains one of the most unequal countries in the European Union, with 20 percent of its wealthiest citizens earning an income that is 5.7 times higher than 20 percent of its poorest.”
The only countries within Europe that fare worse than Portugal, de Sousa stressed, are Bulgaria, Romania and Greece.
Arguing that figures “cannot be ignored”, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa reiterated “a global strategy of poverty eradication” needs to be implemented in Portugal.
“We do not have much more time to waste. It is, after all, a race against time to prevent our society from spiralling into what others have, and which, in the short term, will struggle to get back of out of in terms of populism, xenophobia, and the insecurities and fears they face”, he concluded.