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October 17, 2019
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Czech Institute for Social Inclusion: Fake news about welfare is what might lead to social unrest

4.10.2019 16:21
A photograph taken of the assault on human rights activist Ondřej Cakl during the 2008 ultra-right riot at the Janov housing estate.
A photograph taken of the assault on human rights activist Ondřej Cakl during the 2008 ultra-right riot at the Janov housing estate.

Czech Labor and Social Affairs Minister Jana Maláčová (Czech Social Democratic Party - ČSSD) paid a visit to the Chamber of Deputies' Committee on Social Policy on 19 September and told the MPs there that she has not yet completed her revision to welfare benefits that was originally planned for April of this year. She also reported that none of the other points of the so-called "Fifteen Measures to Address the Situation in Socially Excluded Localities" will be fulfilled soon either.

She then promised the livid committee members to complete both tasks through a newly-established commission set to convene as of 2 October at her ministry. The Institute for Social Inclusion will be attending sessions of that commission.

We are hoping that, along with organizations that aid people in social exclusion, we will manage to warn the ministerial bureaucrats, legislators and municipal representatives there about the scale of the changes to the housing benefits system that is being considered. We will also not stop reminding them that it is folly to expect anything from the "Fifteen Measures", the sole purpose of which was to divert public attention in September 2018 away from the Government's failure to prepare a social housing law by October 2018 according to its legislative plan.

Politicians can't resist spinning the news after touring excluded localities

Maláčová has been invited by mayors in structurally-afflicted regions to visit several socially excluded localities and is doing her best to comply with their calls for "strict standards for the poor". In addition to visiting the biggest socially excluded locality in the country, the Janov housing estate in Litvínov - where the minister, as one of a long line of politicians, allowed herself to be tempted by a tour of the devastated housing estate given directly by the engineer of the city's destructive "zero tolerance" policy, Martin Klika - she also visited the Chanov housing estate in Most as part of a trip by the above-mentioned committee during the run of the popular mini-series "MOST!" on Czech Television.

Such excursions are understandably always full of embedded journalists to whom the visiting politicians' "conclusions" and impressions must necessarily be communicated. It was no different during the most recent incident of this kind, the Labor and Social Affairs Minister's slumber party in the temporarily-leased apartment of Czech MP Eva Fialová (Association of Dissatisfied Citizens - ANO) and the subsequent taking of souvenir photographs with infamous local social policy actors, led by the head of the municipal Social Affairs Department, Ivana Šťastná, whose involvement now means the entire territory of Ústí nad Labem has become the country's biggest housing benefit-free zone.

What is the consequence of these events? The minister has now said there is a "threat of unrest" if the housing benefits are not revised.

"We are on the brink of civil unrest. What happened 10 years ago in the Ústecký Region was not an anomaly. God forbid the economic situation deteriorates. I dare say this is a time bomb waiting to go off," she told the lower house in her remarks about excluded localities.

Is the revision of housing benefits actually necessary to stave off the threat of unrest?

If the Czech Republic is on the brink of unrest, it's just because local and national politicians are nodding to the populists who are disseminating fake news about welfare benefits, their alleged influence on the creation of ghettos, and the allegedly high living standard that such allegedly undeserved benefits allegedly make possible. Senior citizens, or families with dependent children who just manage to stretch their own retirement pensions or their earnings from "temporary jobs" far enough to cover their own housing costs logically feel grim when they hear others allegedly "don't have to work and the state still pays for their housing" - housing that these "others" allegedly do not appreciate, but instead allegedly destroy while the state allegedly repeatedly "stuffs them with more benefits".

Local and national politicians are not brave enough, and sometimes are not willing enough, to inform the public that in this country, for decades now, unaddressed housing policy with respect to the "lower" couple of million inhabitants here - those without mortgages, inherited apartments or villas - means that some households are living in situations with no chance of accessing regular rental housing. There are just no rentals available corresponding to their financial circumstances.

If unrest looms, therefore, it is not because housing benefits are horrendously high and available to anybody who asks for them. In the Czech Republic, welfare benefits are literally the only measure that exists to support low-income people's access to rental housing.

Even this sole method keeps being cut back, at least since the economic recession of 2011, instead of being gradually augmented (to say nothing of being replaced) by affordable apartments and services - and it is the cuts that are causing further catastrophe. Whoever is awarded welfare benefits that are lower than his or her actual housing costs (whether that housing is of good quality or not - usually it is simply the only housing available) must make money some other way to stay housed.

Extra money used to be made by selling scrap metal to the centers that collected such materials (which led to the disappearance of metal railings from staircases or radiators from apartments), but today money is made by performing work illegally, by black market trading in cars or other goods, by selling drugs or even one's own body. Will this misery be resolved by halting housing benefits entirely, or will it be further intensified?

Czech MP Jan Bauer (Civic Democratic Party - ODS) is proposing stripping the perpetrators of misdemeanors and/or felonies of their eligibility for any welfare benefits for a time period of between six months and one year - so he should have to answer that question. As for the Labor and Social Affairs Minister, her alarmism (a term she likes to use against her opponents) is meant to warn that working people could march against "the welfare cheats" as happened in 2008 in Litvínov, in 2011 in Varnsdorf, and in 2013 in Duchcov, ostensibly because working people will have had enough of those who are allegedly living large to the detriment of the state while they, with their below-average wages, are not entitled to any welfare benefits and must first make their own money to be able to afford anything, the rent included.

It's true that during the years mentioned above people did actually take to the streets because they were not doing well. However, what distinctly aided them at the time were exactly these kinds of declarations about the need to do away with an alleged "injustice" that actually did not even exist - namely, that people receiving housing benefits allegedly have easy lives, or allegedly don't have to work or actively seek work, or allegedly don't even have to send their children to school (allegations that were never true, not even back in 2007!).

Who should know better if not the Minister of Social Affairs...

... what the ceiling on housing benefits is in reality, what an insignificant proportion of the national budget those benefits represent (and despite that, a continually decreasing one) as part of the total welfare benefits package, and how harsh the conditions are to be awarded them and stay eligible for them? What do we have national-level politicians for here if all they are going to do is give the nod to the local politicians who are demonstrably irresponsible, agree with uninformed lawmakers and incompetent officials - instead of clarifying these problems on their own to the public and giving instructions as to how to solve them?

We don't need ministers to disseminate alarmist messages, the citizens are doing that on their own already inside their bubbles on social media and the disinformation websites - sometimes with the support of extremist movements and parties. We expect cabinet members to submit a social housing law for adoption and to target funding to the afflicted areas, to the municipalities so they can buy out apartment units, reconstruct them, and deploy a meaningful local social housing policy that includes support for the necessary social work and social services in the field.

Institut pro sociální inkluzi (Institute for Social Inclusion), translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Institut pro sociální inkluzi, MPSV, social exclusion, social housing



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