VOORBURG, Netherlands (AP) — Cans of fish, jars of pasta sauce and bags of beans are stacked in blue boxes. Meat, dairy and bread are cooled in a huge freezer and walk-in refrigerator in this affluent Dutch city. The supplies are there to feed the new poor in one of the richest countries in the world.
Needy families are lining up at food banks across the Netherlands to receive free handouts. This illustrates how poverty is spreading even among lower middle class families and why combating it has become an important issue in next Wednesday’s parliamentary elections.
If things get worse, “then it will really become a scandal for society,” said Rob Kuipers, a 70-year-old retired civil servant and chairman of the local food bank in Leidschendam-Voorburg, which is easily accessible by bike, according to Parliament in The Hague.
The crisis in the cost of living, the chronic lack of social and affordable housing as well as the restriction of access to affordable healthcare have become known during the election campaign under the slogan “living security” and are an issue that all parties address in their election manifestos.
“For a long time people lived in poverty, but that was always, relatively speaking, a smaller group and a fairly marginal group, and now that has spread to the lower middle class.” And that’s why I think we’re like this now talk about it a lot,” said Maurice Crul, professor of sociology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
“This has always been an issue that the progressive or left-wing parties have put on the agenda,” he added. “But now you can see that populist right-wing parties and the center party are also putting this strongly on the agenda.”
This centrist “middle party” is embodied by Pieter Omtzigt, a former Christian Democrat who launched the New Social Contract in the summer. The poll numbers are already so high that he will do it play a significant role in coalition negotiations as soon as the votes are counted.
After years of advocating for marginalized members of society and exposing government scandals, fighting poverty is one of his two main campaign themes.
“There is a long list of things we need to do to address this cost of living crisis,” he told reporters at a campaign rally. “We will make the basic needs of life affordable,” says his party’s election manifesto. Measures include reforming tax and social regulations 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 the party of the rich and proponent of the free market economy – also promises help.
“To ensure that full-time workers can make ends meet, we will increase the minimum wage,” the party promises in its election manifesto. “In order to counteract child poverty, we will provide targeted support to families with children.”
This underscores that the issue crosses traditional party lines, a center-left two-party bloc led by Frans Timmermans, former climate chief of the European Union suggests some of the same solutions. She advocates raising the Dutch minimum wage to 16 euros ($17.40) an hour. For employees over 21, the minimum wage is currently 12.79 euros for a 36-hour week.
For some workers and others on welfare, that’s not enough.
The national umbrella organization of the 176 Dutch food banks says they serve a total of 38,000 households – 100,000 people – every week and that 1.2 million people live below the poverty line. The figure fell slightly compared to last year as inflation soared in the Netherlands and around the world.
Just 18 months ago, the food bank had 140 customers in Leidschendam-Voorburg, a municipality of around 78,000 residents that recently ranked fifth in a survey of the “most livable” cities in the Netherlands. This number rose to 250 as the cost of living crisis swept across the world and did not spare the wealthy Netherlands. Those 250 households include up to 700 people, Kuipers said.
The actual number of people suffering from subsistence levels is likely to be much higher. The Leidschendam-Voorburg food bank Kuipers estimates that the actual number of people eligible for food aid could be two to three times higher.
Now he is waiting to see how the election will turn out and which new constellation will join forces to govern the country.
Party programs “are full of fine words and relatively few concrete actions,” he said.
He is watching how these beautiful words are translated into concrete actions after the election.
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