Julien Damon – the former president of France’s National Institute for Poverty and Social Exclusion:
By measuring relative income poverty – defined as the percentage of the population with less than 1000 € at their disposal per month – 14 percent of French people are poor.
However “the poor” can also be defined as the collective of people benefiting from social benefit schemes created especially for them, known in France as the “minima sociaux”, which are benefits for low-income individuals (like the active solidarity income (RSA), allowances for handicapped adults, or basic pension).
Currently, 3.6 million people receive these benefits, so if we take their families into account, a total of 6.5 million people or 10 percent of the French population are living off the “minima sociaux” allowances.
Yet, it would be wrong to say that the poverty rate is growing.
In fact, in the past 20 years it hasn’t significantly increased. From 1970 to 1980, it even went down and stabilized between 13 percent and 14 percent. The rate continued to decrease further for example between 2011 and 2012.
The face of poverty in France however has clearly has changed: the poor used to be elderly, from large families, and live in rural areas. Nowadays, they are young, from lone-parent families, live in urban zones, and struggle to enter the labor market.
So is France still a rich country?
Absolutely. Poverty, contrary to the miserable and pessimist statements, hasn’t grown out of control. Furthermore, the French show solidarity, generosity and tolerance towards the poor. They don’t criticize the poor themselves, but the social politics and their inefficiency to deal with the problem.
The French, contrary to the Americans, wouldn’t say that the poor brought their situation upon themselves with their laziness. They are much more likely to blame structural flaws in the system.
Of course fraud and people who take advantage exist. But in relation with the total number of poor people they are a minority. But we can see the French are getting more and more exasperated about this abuse.
In my view, those who claim poverty is growing rapidly, do so with two ideas in mind. On the one hand, they establish a link between unemployment and poverty: so when the first increases, the second one, in their eyes, follows suit.
On the other hand, poverty is much more visible now, which supports their argument. Poverty is undeniably more visible because, over recent years, it has started to affect younger people, to move to urban zones, and to concentrate in geographically areas.
Are the inequalities of wealth growing in France?
Let us compare our situation to the one in the United States. Ever since the financial crisis, the American middle class has been falling apart and has experienced a huge cut in median and average wages, whereas the French middle classes were not affected by the crisis until 2012.
Since then, French middle class people have been facing difficulties, partly due to our socio-fiscal system that neglects them: these individuals are effectively not poor enough to receive benefits, don’t necessarily have the means to live comfortably, and aren’t rich enough to benefit from tax reductions.
Contrary to what we hear, inequality in France has been stable for the past 20 years. Still, like poverty, they undergo transformations: nowadays inequalities can be seen between the private and public sectors and between downtown areas and sensitive urban zones.
A recent poll of French people revealed 71 percent believe poor people receive benefits too easily and 63 percent said these benefits encourage laziness. Are we seeing the beginning of a war on poor people in France?
This year, the United States celebrate the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s War On Poverty, the results of which were spectacular, even if today, certain people estimate that it was poverty that won the war.
The US has now moved from a war on poverty to a war on the poor, but the sense of community and solidarity remains strong in France.
Nevertheless Our system is the target of more and more criticism, especially because of the diversification of the French population.
In certain countries, social policies are generous and widely accepted by everybody because the population is homogeneous but in other countries like France with its diverse population, the welfare state comes in for more and more criticism.
It is always easier to give to our neighbors if they are similar to us.
Julien Damon is an associate professor at Sciences-Po University. The former president of the National Institute for Poverty and Social Exclusion has published several books on the issue of poverty.