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Opinion: Yes, poverty exists in Sweden, but it has been made invisible

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Opinion: Yes, poverty exists in Sweden, but it has been made invisible
Sweden's City Mission offering free lunch to homeless people in Stockholm. Photo: Fanni Olin Dahl/TT
07:59 CET+01:00
Sweden must help those citizens living in poverty, argues Lotta Säfström of charity organization Sweden's City Missions.

Real poverty exists in Sweden today, even though those who live in poverty or are vulnerable rarely refer to themselves as poor.

A report by Sveriges Stadsmissioner (Sweden's City Missions) shows that as many as two thirds (62 percent) of our 200,000 basic interventions are about feeding the hungry. Together with material and economic support that makes up four out of five interventions aimed at people's most basic needs such as food and clothing. Despite this, the government's Agenda 2030 report shows that there is no absolute poverty in Sweden today.

Last month we, together with social work researcher Magnus Karlsson of Ersta Sköndal University College, presented our third annual survey of poverty in Sweden, based on the vulnerability our City Missions see. We can tell that acute and real poverty exists here and now, even if it is not always visible to the general public.

The survey shows that as many as two thirds (62 percent) of the city missions' interventions are to do with food. The City Missions hand out bags of food and food vouchers to financially vulnerable families with children on a daily basis, and serve cheap or free meals to poor pensioners and homeless people.

Among those suffering the most are people who have been on benefits for a long time. According to the National Board of Health and Welfare benefits are meant to offer temporary support but far from everyone is able to get back on their feet. The board's statistics show that around a third of those who receive financial assistance receive it for longer periods of time, and the proportion has increased in recent years. The City Mission meets people who have lived on benefits for five, ten or fifteen years.

The step from being a citizen well established in society to completely losing your way is short. A few thousand-kronor notes could be the difference between having your own home for yourself and your children, or having to move around between sofas and hostels. Divorce, bankruptcy or losing your job could lead both to homelessness and mental illness.

Another very vulnerable group are those we call unhelped citizens. Those who are entitled to support, but who for various reasons do not get it. It could be that you end up in between different parts of the public system (for example sickness benefits or employment benefits), that poor mental health makes you unable to navigate Swedish bureacracy, or that you have simply lost your trust in social services after too many misunderstandings. This group is often invisble in official statistics. City Mission workers meet them and help to meet their acute need for food and clothes, and offer support to help reestablish their contact with authorities.

Sweden's City Missions consider it a problem when the official statistics and political debate do not reflect reality. Statistics based on addresses registered in official records exclude people living in homelessness. Statistics based on case files at for example the social services risk missing those who never find their way to the right support agency. Invisible poverty is an obstacle to taking the problems seriously and finding solutions!

We have been raising this issue of invisible poverty for several years, and have also found that Social Minister Annika Strandhäll understands the problem. However, we're seeing very few concrete measures to deal with poverty in Sweden today. Our City Missions across the country report a level of vulnerability that has not existed since the 1970s. The social safety net is growing weaker and thousands of people seek out organizations in civil society to get help with the most basic necessities. Nevertheless the government's Agenda 2030 report shows that absolute poverty does not exist in Sweden today!

The inability to tackle poverty possibly stems from the lack of a relevant definition of poverty for Swedish conditions. The debate, when it is debated, is often based on the international measure of "absolute poverty" for those living on less than two dollars a day – something which is barely enough to pay for a bottle of water in Sweden. Or, the concept of "relative poverty" is used, that is an income below 60 percent of the median income. The concept is sometimes ridiculed in Sweden, and it is said it is not "real" poverty. This despite the EU statistical body Eurostat calling this level of income "risk of poverty". According to Eurostat's most recent statistics, 16 percent of Sweden's population are at risk of poverty. That's 1.5 million people!

Many of the people who contact the country's city missions are far below this limit. This invisible group, who hide in between the established definitions, does not match the image the Swedish government wants to present abroad. When the government last summer published its first Agenda 2030 report it established that "absolute poverty does not exist in Sweden today" and that "the public social security system creates security for everyone and counteracts financial vulnerability". These claims do not reflect the reality seen by Sweden's City Missions.

Stop closing your eyes to poverty in Sweden! Half of Sweden's population believes that poverty is a somewhat big or very big social problem, according to a Sifo survey. It is time for the government to define poverty in a way that is relevant and measurable in Sweden, and together with civil society develop a national strategy for fighting poverty in Sweden!

Sweden's City Missions propose:

1. Appointing a commission tasked with surveying poverty in Sweden beyond social services statistics, together with civil society, and propose a relevant definition of poverty in Sweden, how it is to be measured, discussed and tackled.

2. That the parliament based on the commission's work adopts a national poverty strategy.

3. That the government investigates the serious shortcomings of the public welfare systems repeatedly pointed out by the City Missions, and formulates strategies to tackle these.

This is The Local's translation of an article written by Lotta Säfström, chairwoman of Sweden's City Missions, originally published in Swedish by Dagens Nyheter.

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