VOORBURG, Netherlands (AP) — Cans of fish, jars of pasta sauce and bags of beans are stacked in blue crates. Meat, dairy and bread are kept cold in a huge freezer and walk-in refrigerator in this wealthy Dutch city. Supplies are available to feed the new poor in one of the world’s richest countries.
Families in need are lining up for free help at food banks across the Netherlands, showing how deep-rooted poverty is even in lower-middle-class families and why fighting it has become a major theme of the legislative elections next Wednesday.
If the situation gets worse, “it will really become a scandal for society,” said Rob Kuipers, a 70-year-old retired senior civil servant and president of the local food bank in Leidschendam-Voorburg, a short bike ride from it. parliament in The Hague.
The cost of living crisis, chronic shortages of social and affordable housing, and limits on access to affordable health care have combined to be known under the catch-all title of “security of existence” in election campaigns and it is a subject that all parties address. in their electoral programs.
“For a long time we had people living in poverty, but it was always, relatively speaking, a smaller and quite marginal group, and now it has spread to the lower middle class. And that, I think, is why we are talking about it so much now,” said Maurice Crul, professor of sociology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
“This has always been a subject that progressive or left-wing parties have put on the agenda,” he added. “But now you see that the right-wing populist parties and the middle party are also putting it on the agenda. »
This centrist “middle party” is embodied by Pieter Omtzigt, a former Christian Democrat who put in place the New Social Contract this summer. The polls are already so high that he will play a key role in coalition talks once votes are counted.
After years of campaigning on behalf of marginalized members of society and exposing government scandals, the fight against poverty is one of his two main campaign themes.
“There is a long list of things we need to do to combat this cost of living crisis,” he told reporters at a campaign event. “We will make basic necessities affordable,” says his party’s manifesto, with measures such as reforming tax and social security rules to give people more disposable income.
The center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte – traditionally seen as a party of the rich and a proponent of the market economy – is also committed to helping.
“To ensure that people who work full time can make ends meet, we will increase the minimum wage,” promises the party manifesto. “To tackle child poverty, we will provide targeted support to families with children. »
Underscoring how the issue cuts across traditional party lines, a bipartisan center-left bloc led by Frans Timmermans, former European Union climate chief offers some of the same solutions. He advocates raising the Dutch minimum wage to 16 euros ($17.40) an hour. For employees over 21, the current minimum is 12.79 euros for a 36-hour working week.
For some workers and others who live on social assistance, this is not enough.
The national organization of 176 Dutch food banks says they serve a total of 38,000 households, or 100,000 people, every week and that 1.2 million people live below the poverty line. This figure is down slightly from last year, when inflation was soaring in the Netherlands and around the world.
Just 18 months ago, the food bank in Leidschendam-Voorburg, a town of some 78,000 inhabitants recently ranked fifth in a survey of the most “liveable” towns in the Netherlands, had 140 clients. That figure soared to 250 as a cost-of-living crisis swept the world and did not spare the wealthy Netherlands. Those 250 households represent up to 700 people, Kuipers said.
The real number of people living in poverty may be much higher. According to estimates from the Kuipers food bank in Leidschendam-Voorburg, the actual number of people eligible for food aid could be two to three times higher.
He is now waiting to see how the elections will play out and the new constellation of parties joining forces to rule the country.
Party programs “are full of nice words and relatively few specific actions,” he said.
He is waiting to see “how these beautiful words will be translated into concrete actions” after the elections.
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