Commentary: Czech amendment to tighten welfare restrictions is just more salt in the wound
Yesterday the program in the Czech lower house was meant to include discussion of the strictest-ever conditions being added to the law on aid to those in material distress, and the organizations that provide aid to the impoverished in this country are shocked by the absolute lack of shame among the submitters of this amendment, who are doing so at a time of an economic and public health crisis, as well as by the degree of irrationality in the amendment proposed. I have asked our colleagues for some actual stories from their work in the field to illustrated how the social welfare system is already in the process of being disrupted here.
The first big area is the subject of "Quality housing at the price point of those receiving material need benefits". The amendment works with the concept of an "apartment of bad quality", but how that quality is to be assessed is left up to fate, and I am concerned that there is a great deal of leeway for Labor Office staffers to indulge their own imaginations when doing the assessing.
If, as is the custom, a secret internal order or some other guide were to be issued about this, the entire procedure of assessment could depend either on the arbitrary decisions of the local authorities or the arbitrary decisions of their political "superiors", i.e., on whoever the Labor and Social Affairs Minister happens to be. Neither option is desirable.
The entire principle of punishing families for the fact that they have no opportunity to rent a better apartment, and that they therefore will also lose the money they are otherwise entitled to for the inferior apartment they are renting, is completely wrong-headed. If a family is evicted, and if they have children, then those children will be institutionalized at the cost of approximately CZK 290 000 [EUR 11 250] per capita annually, which in the case of three children is almost a million crowns [EUR 38,795], and if those three children are aged five, seven and eight, and if such institutionalization lasts until their 18th birthday, when the children's home kicks them out after what has become a total of 34 institution-years for the three of them, then that means this entire endeavor will have cost the taxpayers about CZK 30 million [EUR 1,163,853].
Bravo! That example is just theoretical, though, let's look at the real example of Renata, a single mother of five children whose father pays no child support.
Renata rents an apartment in an inferior state of repair in Prague, and the owner of the unit refuses to invest into its upkeep - Renata has painted it at her own cost, etc., and most of the electrical outlets in the unit don't work, so she has extension cords running all over the place and, despite her repeated attempts to negotiate with the owner about repairs, she has been left to her own resources and has to repair anything that needs fixing on her own. If this amendment passes, and if an audit of the state of repair of that apartment arrives at the conclusion that Renata is indeed liable for all repairs, she is still unable to afford them, and if the audit rules that her housing benefit should be stopped because the unit is unsuitable, she will end up on the street and her children will be taken by those who organize foster care.
Members of the public and other lawmakers who have not actually even read this bill are also being sold a story about the need for it that references the area of children's truancy from school. What apparently is escaping those who support the bill on that basis is that allowing truancy is already defined as both a felony and a misdemeanor and can already be sanctioned today.
Our experience is that it is not infrequent for parents to be convicted of allowing their children's truancy and to be given conditional sentences or even prison time for it. Here is a story from the north of the country to illustrate this fact.
Martina is a mother of four children (ages seven, five, four and six months) who lost her temporary accommodation at the Výsluní hostel. She then moved into a worse such temporary facility on the other side of town.
Her partner is serving a prison sentence, so she is left on her own to care for the children and the upkeep of the household. Her daughter Lucie is in first grade at a school located near the Výsluní facility.
After Martina relocated to the other facility on the other side of town, she was not able to arrange for Lucie to keep regularly attending first grade because the commute from her new home to her old school is too long. Martina therefore asked to enrol her daughter in the primary school closer to where the family now live, but because they do not have a permanent address, her request was denied.
The child therefore has unexcused absences on her record, even though her mother did her best to actively communicate with the school about their predicament. Because of these circumstances, Martina currently faces a conditional sentence for allowing Lucie's absence on the one hand, and on the other, she faces a reduction to the welfare benefits that are currently absolutely crucial for her family.
Martina's family is facing the risk of losing their housing and the children being subsequently institutionalized already, today, even without the innovations that the lawmakers are proposing. Let's review yet another example of this brilliant subject of how to rub salt in the wounds of people who already have too much salt in them.
Jana is on maternity leave and her partner, who is not always around, beats her when he is around. It is always a problem for Jana to document her partner's income in her own communications with the Labor Office, because he is customarily only at home and "ok" for a little while before a conflict happens and he is either removed from the household by police, or disappears for a couple of days on his own.
The partner exploits Jana's need to confirm his income to the Labor Office for leverage in their abusive relationship. The Labor Office wants this domestic violence victim to either document that she has taken legal action against her batterer or "submit" to contact with him so he can sign the necessary paperwork.
The latest innovation in such cases means that if Jana does not submit either proof of legal action or signed documentation of her partner's income by the Labor Office's deadline, she will spend six months without her welfare benefits and will just have the state's childcare contribution for her youngest child to live on. Then there is the horror story of Květa, who is the caregiver for her own three children and for two children of a friend of hers who passed away - they were entrusted to her care by the court, but she cannot claim foster parent remuneration because of the way in which the court placed them in her care.
In May 2020, Květa found temporary employment for just three days, after which those contracting her ended their agreement. She never reported it to the Labor Office because she only made a couple of hundred crowns, and it never occurred to her that it was necessary to report that income to the office from which she was receiving aid to those in material distress.
During an audit, the Labor Office ascertained that Květa had been under contract for temporary work, and she was sanctioned, which means she was deleted from the Labor Office rolls for six months (which means she now has to make her own health insurance payments, which she cannot afford, so debt is accruing) and she could not draw any aid to those in material distress for three months. We spent that entire three months helping Květa repeatedly apply for Exceptional Immediate Aid (Mimořádná okamžitá pomoc - MOP) in a case of imminent damage to health for all five of the minors in Květa's care.
The entire family was barely able to subsist and I cannot imagine how it would have been possible for them to make it through such a situation if they had been denied aid to those in material distress for a period of six months. This story clearly demonstrates that even a three-month break in receiving this aid is no "picnic" for those who are otherwise entitled to it (as Czech MP Volný calls it).
Then there is the story of Michal, a single father of two young children who lost his job because of COVID-19, cannot pay his rent or make a living, and gets aid to those in material distress. He is drawing the allowance for subsistence, but when it came to the housing supplement, he was asked by the Labor Office to supply the registration documentation for the owner of the property that he rents.
The owner is not cooperating with him, so Michal is currently unable to supply that documentation, which means he has lost the opportunity to be awarded this supplement for the next six months. Then there is the story of Lucie and Martin, parents of little Dominika - Martin has lost his job and Lucie is on maternity leave.
This couple made it possible, in good faith, for a friend of theirs to use their bank account to receive electronic payments from the different temporary jobs he was working. They were asked by the Labor Office to document and justify all of the deposits to their bank account that were the income of this friend and to submit confirmation of his contracts from his employers, etc.
This has not proved feasible in practice - they have attempted to contact these employers, who absolutely do not respond to their attempts at communication. It is, therefore, impossible for them to respond to the requirement that they supply this information in time - which means they have no opportunity to draw benefits for the next six months.
At this juncture it makes sense to mention the ongoing debate about adopting the concept of accounts that cannot be accessed by collections agents. There are 790 000 people subjected to collections proceedings in this country, and if they are to receive money for their work electronically and maintain control over it, they usually do so through other people's bank accounts - it was not until last month that MPs adopted the protected account concept, although they adopted a rather unfortunate version of it.
Then there is the story of Zuzana, a single mother who has been unable to get her ex-boyfriend to make a statement as to where he now lives, if anywhere - as a consequence, she too will not be able to draw welfare for the next six months. Then there is the story of Vladimír, a father working full-time who de facto cares for three children, 15-year-old twins and a six-year-old son.
Three years ago Vladimír and the children's mother, from whom he is separated, agreed that the older girls would live with him while the son would go to live with his mother, an arrangement approved by the court. The mother then stopped taking care of anything, began drinking, and makes no contribution whatsoever.
Vladimír brought his son back to his own home and in July 2020 filed a motion for a new custody decision with the courts - but for six months, the District Court for Prague 5 and the District Court for Prague 4 have disputed which of them has jurisdiction in the case. In December 2020, Vladimír applied for an allowance to cover his housing costs and for allowances for the children's costs, but the Labor Office requires the documentation of a court decision granting him custody (or documentation of the fact that the children's mother agrees with these arrangements, even though neither the children nor Vladimír know where she is) - and since he cannot provide it, he cannot draw these allowances for the next six months.
Then there is the story of Jana, who has two children and is constantly having problems with the Labor Office. In May 2020, the Labor Office rejected her application for aid to those in material distress because the necessary confirmation from her former employer was not submitted by the deadline, even though the measures instituted to combat COVID-19 meant it was no longer possible for Jana obtaining the documents in person, and using the post office instead meant the deadline was missed.
The Labor Office rejected Jana's appeal of that decision as well. In September 2020, her benefits were cancelled because somebody paid a loan back to her ex-partner - and paid it to her bank account.
The ex-partner is refusing to communicate with Jana, which means she cannot document this to the Labor Office. Then in December 2020, her benefits were "delayed" because she was unable to submit a pay slip from an employer, a Vietnamese business that had employed her for two hours - even though payment of that income had been confirmed with the business's stamp on a Labor Office form.
Right now Jana is not drawing any benefits, and since she didn't submit the pay slip by the deadline, she won't be able to apply for any more for another six months. Last but notleast, we give you the story of Tamara.
This mother of two shares custody of one of her children with her ex-partner. He therefore has to confirm that he agrees with Tamara applying for aid to those in material distress, and he has to provide confirmation from his employer that he is not claiming the child as a dependent for tax purposes.
The ex-partner is not registered as unemployed with the Labor Office, but he also does not have any official income registered anywhere. He didn't want to give Tamara the confirmations she needs, so currently she, too, can't draw benefits for six months.
In conclusion, we must mention the whole idea in the proposed amendment of the fines to be deducted from the aid awarded to those in material distress and then deposited in the bank accounts of the same municipalities that levied the fines. This all seems clear and simple, and it would mean no need for collections agents to worry about the unconfiscatable minimum amount of money that applies to all other income sources.
The assumption among proponents of this idea is that since it is the municipalities that will be in charge of it, then it must be in order. Based on our experiences, though, we can all probably imagine the kind of show some municipalities will put on if they are armed with such an instrument.
The author is the director of the Program for Social Integration at the People in Need organization.
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