The other face

Werner Sikken
NCDO National Committee for International Cooperation and Sustainable Development

In 1995, the Dutch Queen declared in her annual speech:«Hidden poverty and social exclusion must be delt withunanimously and with force. With this statement the Dutchgovernment has put the poverty problem on the political agenda».The policy paper «The other side of the Netherlands: dealingwith prevention and fighting poverty and social exclusion», is afirst concrete step in implementing the recommendations of theWorld-top of Social Development. The policy paper shows that thegovernment aims at creating more jobs for the unemployed (350.000extra jobs) and aims at giving city-councils more freedom forfinancial support of people in problematic financial situations.

Other goals are a more integral solution of individual debtswith special attention for prevention and improving theinformation about special financial support programs. Furtheraims are to improve the research on poverty. Researchers willmonitor the development in poverty in the Netherlands for thecoming years.

Finally, the government plans to organise an anual «socialconference» (up until the year 2000) where NGO's and thegovernment meet, discuss and contribute to fighting poverty andsocial exclusion. The first conference was held in october 1996,together with the publication of the first report «PoorNetherlands».


Poverty can be looked upon in a subjective or an objectiveway. The first approach investigates poverty as an individualexperience. In the latter approach, individual judgement is notrelevant. Poverty is also a relative concept, related to thestandard of living in a society.

The World-bank considers one dollar a day the minimum level ofsubsistence.

Dutch re-searchers of two important research-institutes (SCP& CBS) call the poverty limit «the social minimum». Thisminimum level is in the Netherlands Fl. 1852, - monthly for acouple. For an individual it is Fl. 926, - and for an individualparent 1296 Dutch guilders a month, excluding a holiday-bonus.Social security for couples is equal to the minimum-wage.Individuals get half. If persons can prove they live alone, it ispossible to get a bonus of 370 guilders a month.

According to the Dutch research «Poor Netherlands», 4 to 5%of the population (between 230.000 and 319.000 households) areliving below the social minimum. Another 7-9% (27.000 to 66.000households) live on or just a little above this minimum. Thenumber of people with a low income (118% of social minimum) iseven bigger (900.000 households in 1994). There are no figuresavailable yet on the number of children living in poverty.

Generally, women run a bigger risk to live in poverty thanmen. The main reasons are: divorces, insufficient or no recentjob experiences and a lack of child-care centres.

Other groups with special poverty-risks are: unemployedpeople, individual parents, people addapted to financial supportby the government, low educated people. Minorities living in oneof the four big cities (Amsterdam, The Haque, Rotterdam andUtrecht) run a higer poverty risk. Illegal immigrants do not getfinancial support at all.


The longer poverty lasts, the more serious its consequencesare. For example, «big expenses» can only be covered with moredifficulty. Almost half of the households with a low income(around 397.000) find themselves almost four times a year in thissituation. This concerns mainly elderly women.

Although the percentage of poor people decreased slightlysince 1980, the intensity of poverty increased. In 1983, theaverage shortage of income was 2.200 guilders, in 1995 it was3.500 guilders. The recent research «Poor Netherlands» showsthat 22.000 households are short of food. 43.000 cannot afford adaily hot meal and 160.000 households do not have enough moneyfor heating and telephone. 576.000 thousand cannot buy newclothes.

These issues also cover the surviving strategy of poor people:first clothes, secondly heating and telephone, thirdly rent,water, energy and finally food. «Poor Netherlands» concludesthat poverty and social exclusion will be a permanent situationfor a large number of people.


A household in the Netherlands can go below the «minimumlevel» for different reasons. Poverty is a cumulative problem.It is a congestion of setbacks such as unemployment, bad healthand higher expenses for rent etc. Especially the elderly andwomen are vulnarable for these setbacks.

Un important factor are debts. 150.000 to 200.000 householdshave problematic debts. Very often these households have littlesocial and economic perspectives. The government intends to workhard on reducing these debts. City-councils will get morepossibilities in debt relief.

Income support and extra financial support

People with a minimum income make little use of rent subsidiesand other regulations for financial support. According to thepoverty-researchers this causes half of all the poverty. Thecity-council, for example, can also give special financialsupport for renewing a washing-machine, but households hardly usethis possibility for reasons of shame or fear of detailed anddifficult administrative procedures. In particular elderly peopledo not use special financial support and health insurances.


The main cause for poverty is unemployment. 83% of thehouseholds living on the minimum level do not receive a salary.People wich are not able to work, like the elderly, occupationaldisabled people and welfare mothers, are forced to live inpoverty. The government wants to stimulate job participation,based on the idea that «paid work is the main source for incomeand social participation». Around 350 thousand extra jobs willbe created at the bottom of the labour market. These extra jobs,however, are not sufficient to really fight unemployment,according to the poverty resarchers and many NGOs. There aresimply not enough jobs for everyone. NGOs are also disturbed bythe fact that the government has not talked yet about a radicalre-allocation of work in creating jobs for everyone.

For a working individual parent on the social minimum thegovernment stimulates extra support for child day-care centres.Women's organizations also stress the importance of aditionalinvestments in special educational programs for women, especiallynow, when the government is abandoning many of these programs.

Housing costs

Housing costs and local taxes are an increasing burden onincomes. Half of all the households with a low income pay 25%.The government aims to achieve the same percentage for all thehouseholds in the Netherlands. According to some critics thisdoes not solve the problems, because housing rents have beenrising quickly over the last few years.

The government also spends more money on care-centres ofhomeless people. One of the criticisms of NGOs is that thepresent growth in the number of homeless people is also caused byfinancial cuts in mental health care.

Health care and education

In their publication «Social mirror», a group of NGOs accusethe government of paying hardly any attention to health care andeducation in its poverty policies. The present situation showsthat sick and low educated people have less and less chances onthe labour market.


NGOs stress the importance of focussing on the reality of thepeople concerned. Their main criticism is that the governmenttalks about the people concerned, rather than talking with them.The policy should be more focussed on using human social energyfor improving their situation. Bishop Muskens of the city ofBreda Summars public awareness about poverty by making it a hotin his speech. Many Dutch NGOs have been discussing poverty andsocial exclusion.

One of the fora for debate is provided by the working group«Social Policy» of the NCDO (National Committee forInternational Cooperation and Sustainable Development). Its goalis keeping the problems of poverty, social exlusion andunemployment on the political and social agenda. Around eightyNGOs, varying from poverty organizations and gender groups toenviromental and development organizations, participate in thisworking group. These NGOs also participated actively in thepreparations for the UN-conference on Social Development inCopenhagen in 1995.


The other side of the Netherlands: dealing with prevention andfighting hidden poverty and social exclusion, 1995, DutchMinistry of Social Affairs and employment. The Hague, 1995.

Poor Netherlands: the first annual report about poverty andsocial exclusion. G. Engbersen, The Hague, 1996. ISBN90.5250.355.9

Social Mirror; reflections on the poverty policy of theNetherlands. Institute of Public and Publicity, Amsterdam, 1996.ISBN 90.6473.319.8

Copenhagen, Zwolle and beyond: summary of discussions betweenNGOs and policy makers about poverty and social exclusion. NCDO,National Committee for international cooperation and sustainabledevelopment, Amsterdam, 1996.