Social exclusion is becoming an increasingly serious problem in some parts of the country. According to statistics the number of excluded localities has doubled in the past decade with over 115,000 people now living in poverty in 600 such localities. To find out more about the problem and what’s being done to combat social exclusion I spoke with Deputy Human Rights Minister Martina Štepánková, who supervises the work of the government’s Agency for Social Inclusion.
“I would say that it is true that the number of people living in socially excluded localities is rising because many people are falling into poverty and also the many programs that are aimed at de-segregation and social inclusion were not successful enough to reverse the trend and include these people into the mainstream. So now we have more socially excluded localities –not only because the number of people living in social exclusion has increased in the last few years but also because many of these localities were divided. The approximate number of people living in a socially excluded locality in 2006 was about 270 and now the average number is about 180 people in one such locality. So now we have more socially excluded localities with fewer people living in them, but the problem is that the socially excluded localities have moved to the smaller cities and smaller cities have a bigger problem tackling social exclusion.”
You said that the programs for social inclusion have not been working very well – why not?
“It is difficult to say, but many people who live in socially excluded localities have a very low level of education, are long-term unemployed and changing their circumstances needs more time, I would say even a whole generation in which time we need to give the children in these localities a better education in order for them to be successful on the labour market. And also the measures taken need to be more synchronized, so that is what we are trying to do – to prepare strategic plans with localities and municipalities in all the important areas such as housing, employment, education, a safer environment around these localities and so on.”
You work closely with 36 towns and cities I believe, where have you made progress and what is proving most difficult?
“Socially excluded localities have moved to the smaller cities and smaller cities have a bigger problem tackling social exclusion.”
“The Agency for Social Inclusion has worked so far with over 70 municipalities, we worked with 36 municipalities this year and with 10 of them we succeeded in preparing strategic plans covering all the important areas. Now we are preparing a project to help municipalities apply for support from European funds to help implement the social inclusion projects they need in areas such as employment, education and housing. So we have had partial successes, but we would like to synergize our efforts to really be able to transform the socially excluded areas into “included” localities and change the lives of the people living in them.”
Could you name some areas where you have made progress – is it employment, social services?
“Yes, for example in social services we were able to help social service providers get money because it is necessary to have really massive social work if we want to make a change. So when we come to a municipality where there are no social services we try to find a provider willing to work in socially excluded areas. We cooperate with local organizations in helping people to find work and helping the municipality find better accommodation for people who not only lack money but also social skills.”
Just this week the government approved a plan for the establishment of social housing- to what extent will that help your efforts when it comes about?
“That is a big success and we see it as a step in the right direction. Now the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs will prepare a law on social housing and it should bring a massive change into housing policies and provide new means of securing housing for people who do not have a sufficient income and who lack the social skills needed to live in a regular housing estate without causing problems. The strategy adopted envisages three types of housing –crisis housing which is for homeless people who do not have a roof over their heads, the second is social housing for people who are long-term unemployed and have social problems, so the housing in such flats will be connected with social work, and the third form is affordable housing for people who have all the skills required but simply do not have an income big enough to pay regular rent.”
Would you say that the lack of social housing has contributed to the rapid increase in socially excluded localities in the past decade?
“Yes, I would say it contributed to the problem because there are not enough solutions, not enough means of helping people who have a housing problem. Some municipalities do not have any flats and so they are not able to provide social flats to people in need. They often lack both a strategy and the necessary funds to provide a solution.”
According to an analysis just out municipalities are to blame for a third of all socially excluded localities – they themselves helped to create them. Do you agree with that?
“Municipalities often lack both a strategy and the necessary funds to provide a solution.”
“I think this was mainly a problem in previous years when many municipalities moved together people who had social problems. I would not say this has been a major problem in the last few years but municipalities now lack the skills and money to change the existing situation. And some of them, I would even say many, do not even have the will to change the situation. All that contributes to the present state of affairs. To change the situation you need, on one hand, good programs, a good system, financial support from the state and European funds but on the other hand you also need political will to change the situation in the given municipality.”
And is this goodwill lacking? Is this a problem?
“It is a problem with some municipalities, but I would say that the situation is really changing. In the last years the Agency for Social Inclusion cooperated with over 70 municipalities and now has active cooperation with over 30 and we are calling for others to join in. We have municipalities contacting us to say they want to cooperate and get help in solving the problem. So I am quite optimistic and would say that the situation is changing for the better. More and more local politicians are behaving responsibly and trying to change the situation, because they realize that doing nothing is not a solution.”