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Opinion & Analysis

Social security and the favour system

Gibraltar’s Social Security system is rapidly becoming unfit for purpose, leaving the vulnerable with an increasingly torn safety net in hard times. It’s damagingly seen as one intrinsic part of a social system of favours, rather than one of entitlement to social benefits derived from living in a democracy like ours.

Indeed, the word ‘entitlement’ has been irresponsibly bandied about by some (through lack of appreciation, perhaps) as a less than hygienic word.

But it isn’t.

It’s a fundamental of any dignified modern democracy; and should not be abused for anyone’s convenience. As fundamental, in fact, as freedom of speech or human rights generally. Entitlement, deeply embedded in numerous instruments, is a cornerstone of much high modern democratic law, at both domestic and international levels.

The misunderstanding, however, appears to look the other way at the presumed right of Administrations of whatever colour to systematically count on the free-of-cost service citizens render them without further ado. Gibraltar being the community it is, governments get away with this budgeting of social discount, time and again; because it’s the family (all too often, elderly people on pensions, or those working-age individuals who sacrifice employment and future prospects in order to care for their frail loved ones) who actually dig into shallow pockets to provide support. Disparities which disproportionately affect women.

While this heroic personal generosity, in itself, cannot be humanly faulted by any decent observer it can, under no circumstances, relieve governments of their duty of political care. And should certainly not occur at the cost of heaping hardship upon hardship.

But it does.

Studies of projected economic outcomes indicate that most low-income working households will likely be worse off by the end of 2020, while years of Social Security patching-up mean the income of families on out-of-work benefits can have fallen significantly over this decade, with little expectation over the horizon. Similarly the confusing minimum formulas Government all too often pulls out of its hat as magical ‘proof’ of its metrics for arguing against Social Security reform, continue to obviate its own inadequacy time and again across diverse sectors of this community.

There is no substitute for transparency. And there is no alternative in an ambitious, high-GDP society for up-front, clear entitlements instead of the morass of behind-the-scenes decision-making in handing out ‘discretionary’ payments. Given the circumstances, it’s no surprise that the system labours under the burden of discreet public suspicion.

There are many reasons why we can be proud of Gibraltar. But this is not going to be one of them.
Not until we own up to a just reform.

Already, some political parties have indicated willingness, while others drag their feet or keep an unworthy silence, costly to their repute. Meantime, the cash value of basic personal tax allowances has been steadily on the increase as a result of electioneering over time, meaning that by the end of this decade a typical high-income household will inevitably receive more financial support from the Gibraltarian State than low-income families on benefits.

This is topsy-turviness on steroids.

It’s a consequence of an out-of-date Social Security machine that has received little positive attention over the last 70 years, despite important social developments which have outgrown it. The system’s punctured in several places, and urgently needs deep love. It’s been the victim of ‘mañana´thinking by successive Administrations for far too long. And little wonder, since addressing the system may imply the need for readjusting Gibraltar’s mix of revenue-generating politics.

Without serious overhaul, however, a crisis in living standards for marginal individuals and families can emerge as a stark reality over the next few years as their post-Brexit/Covid incomes risk deterioration, while child poverty and inequality face (perhaps for the first time) becoming more evident, even with strong economic growth (were that to be sustainable).

Poverty isn’t just about money, though; it’s also what renowned Harvard economist Amartya Sen calls ‘capacity deprivation’; the incapacity of being overlooked, and of having a founded expectation of opportunities similar to the rest of us. Think back over those neighbours that are always absent when everyone else joins in!

Whichever way you look at it, neglect of those living in invisibility and silence is not on. It’s time to take the horns by the bull.

What’s more, poverty (a word we must digest and live with, not compulsively deny) isn’t a single strand. Housing, for example, factors deeply into the profiles of those living at low income levels, and community NGOs know this only too well. Likewise, it’s unjust that some divorced women or indeed private sector pensioners should live below standards.

Especially when the retired are often the mainstay for the care of children, or young people out of work on limited unemployment benefit, as well as for adult offspring in low-paid employment that does not take them above the poverty line. Despite similar age circumstances, some of the latter are graduates in or out of work but under-utilised in employment irrelevant to their costly academic training, while others are those who, due to policies of cheaper imported labour, were never sufficiently invested in for apprenticeship craft skills in residual benefit of the community long-term.

The poverty scenario reveals its ingrained complexity the more you lift its lid. Because poverty comes at a cost to any society.

In the same way that a supportive family network masks the reality of those living below acceptable standards due to poverty, top-heavy discretionary systems enshrined both in law and practice in Gibraltar do us no favours. The perception arises that governments across the years, whilst knowingly leaning on its citizens, has found it convenient to pretend no disparities exist so long as they could count on a free lunch. It’s a form of noiseless citizen-funding.

Intrinsically, the structural poverty of the system itself has consequences. Loss of belief, for instance, is what leads people to rely on direct recourse to Ministers instead of access to up-front rules and open policies applied by an impartial civil service. This may afford patterns of patronage to those in power, but it comes at a corrosive cost.

Civil Society is demanding more honesty. We have been hearing the rumbles of its awakening for some time now; and, in the interests of accountability, it is to be hoped they will not diminish. Because questions need to be asked.
For instance, what is reasonable in realistic cost-of-living terms
• as a weekly benefit for an unemployed person to live on when out of work?
• as a minimum income level for a working person to have below which society must offer adequate support?
• for a pensioner to have as a minimum living income?
The answers are unlikely to tally with benefits as we know them today. And they should be streamlined under one coherently acknowledged Poverty Line metric for Gibraltar.

What’s more, what considerations should be had
• in the design of Social Security offices (battleground or caring support)?
• in the availability of open published information as to the benefits and allowances available?
• in terms of due process appeals against Social Security decisions with respect to benefits granted or not?

Again, the answers will rarely come back with approval for the way we presently manage the interface between claimants and system.

Oftentimes, the denial of the existence of poverty in our society is so ingrained that the impression is that it needs to be ‘proved’ empirically, despite the reality staring us in the face; witness the need to distribute parcels during festive seasons, the organisation of food banks, or the need for provision of meals by charitable enterprises.

All, nonetheless, commendable examples of compassionate action in our community. And yet fiascos such as the mass government housing rental arrears of recent years are testament, in many cases if not all, to accumulated problems of debt in sectors of the population living, not in extreme need, but in unacknowledged relative low income situations.

Beyond that, getting a hold of the poverty reality in the way politicians might find convenient is putting the cart before the horse, and just as likely to fail at the early stages of revindication as was evident with other social issues where marginalised sectors (also subject to cultural shame and stigma) showed reticence.
First we take Manhattan then we take Berlin, Leonard Cohen suggested.

Because things happen in steps: we must rid ourselves of the injustice, and then we can expect the cloak of invisibility to drop. We’ve seen it happen time and again over the past twenty years.

Mathematical biologist Martin Nowak called it ‘the snuggle to survive’. Because the struggle of the fittest doesn’t mean the struggle of the ruthless. More often than not, it is the ‘snuggling together’ of species (from bacteria to mice to penguins) to protect each other from adversity, sudden change, or dire need that guarantees the survival of the whole.

Gibraltar should never overlook that fact. Indeed, we’re entitled to it. And without shame.

Felix Alvarez
Spokesman
Action on Poverty (AOP)