Over the past ten years in France, the number of people living below the poverty line has increased by almost one million, according to a study by the French NGO l’Observatoire des inégalités (Observatory of inequalities), an independent body which produces regular audits of social inequalities in France and abroad.
While the financial and economic crisis contributed significantly to this, what is remarkable is that while a certain recovery has kicked in the trend of deepening poverty has not let up. The figure is an indictment of the economic policies led by both the Right and the Left in France over recent years, and also of the brutal social deregulation now being introduced by President Emmanuel Macron.
In its report published this month, entitled ‘The state of poverty in France’ (see below), published with in conjunction with the Abbé-Pierre Foundation, one of the leading charitable bodies dedicated to fighting social exclusion in France, the observatory examined the period 2005-2015, based on data provided by the French national institute of statistics and economic studies, INSEE, the public body which several of those compiling the report had worked for. It suggests that at every point of economic downturn over this period the rate of poverty surges, while whenever there was an upturn in growth there was never a correlating retreat of poverty.
Which raises the fundamental question of whether economic crises are the basic cause of poverty, or rather that the mechanics of French capitalism constantly condemn a swathe of the population to economic misery and social exclusion.
To understand how these figures are reached, it is first necessary to note that they result from a study of French fiscal data which provides a picture of income. The most recent year of available figures of income is 2015, hence the time lag of the report’s statistics.
To establish its measure of poverty, INSEE first calculates the median income in France, which is that above which lies the top 50% of earners and below which is the lower 50%. In 2015, this was 1,692 euros per month for a single income earner, the observatory’s report explains. Conventionally, statisticians identify two principal poverty rates. One is calculated on the number of those who earn 50% of the median income, while the second, and which is most often cited in public debate, is the number of those whose income is below 60ù of median income.
Using this second calculation, the observatory notes that the poverty line is set at those earning less than a monthly 1,015 euros. “Poverty has strongly progressed since 2008 with the accentuation of economic difficulties linked to the financial crisis,” the report says. “Between 2008 and 2012, the number of poor people, at both the 50% and 60% level [of median income] has risen by 810,000. The poverty rate under the 50% line rose by between 7.4% and 8.5%, and that at 60% by between 13.2% and 14.2%. Since 2012, the rate and number of poor has stagnated. This stagnation is misleading because the crisis has spread in part to the average layers [of income earners]. The median level of income in 2015 remains inferior to that in 2011, while the poverty line is calculated according to median income.”
“This method of calculation means that, for the same income, some of those who were counted as being in poverty in 2011 are no longer so in 2015. An upturn in economic activity is noticeable since the end of 2015, which these figures cannot yet take into account. Between December 2015 and March 2017, the number of those receiving the RSA [minimum income for the unemployed and under-employed] fell by 5%, representing a drop of 95,000 people in just more than a year,which is not negligible. The number of unemployed has fallen. One can therefore hope for a slight amelioration between 2015 and 2017.” On that basis, the report notes that the poverty rate of those earning less than 50% of median income “could fall again below the level of 8%” of the adult population.
But beyond these recent figures that were already known in part , what is above all compelling is the perspective that the observatory presents over a longer period of time, and which gives a severe appreciation of the current social mutations. “The decades of the 2000s and that of 2010 constitute a turning point in our social history,” the report concludes. “Poverty had fallen strongly between the 1970s and the early 1990s. Since then, we are witnessing not an explosion of poverty but rather the inversion of a historic trend. Beyon,d the rise in the number of the poor – even if this is far from being negligible – it is above all the change in orientation that is striking. Poverty is measured as relative to the average living standards. If one looks at the medium term, the divide is deepening between the poor and the average category [of income earners].”
For the immediate period, the observatory notes: “It can only be hoped that the modest reversal that we are witnessing since the end of 2015 has a concrete effect on poverty figures. Given the extent of the recorded degradation since the early years of the 2000s, it will require a much more important and enduring movement, if only to return to the situation that prevailed at the middle of the 2000s when there was a poverty rate of those below 50% [of median income] of 7%. A great deal will depend upon the impact of economic and social policies put in place.”
But on that note, the study appears to doubt that the policies of Emmanuel Macron’s government will have a positive effect, and underlines that its recent move to withdraw housing benefits will only increase the number of poor. “In the longer term, the evolution of poverty will depend for a large part on employment and the conditions in which employment is exercised,” it warns. “Otherwise put, in the manner in which the created riches will be shared. The multiplication of underpaid jobs will only have the effect of transforming poverty by developing working poverty.”
In plainer terms, the increased flexibility of the labour market championed by the new French government, the social precarity that will result from labour law reforms, and more generally the massive move towards an ‘Uberisation’ of employment as encouraged by Macron, threatens to significantly reinforce what became apparent 20 years ago and which is that employment is ever less a protection against poverty.
Amid the mass of statistics provided in the study, a number are chilling; one third of those living in poverty in France are minors, along with close to 35% of blue-collar workers and 36% of people aged under 20.
In conclusion, the report presents the portrait of a country torn by shocking inequalities, far from Macron’s vision of a “start-up” nation, in which a swathe of the population, so badly treated under the five-year presidency of socialist president François Hollande, lives in misery and social exclusion.
This study sound an alarm over the social suffering that undermines France, but it is far from certain that it will be properly heard.
- The French version of this article can be found here.
English version by Graham Tearse