When I grow up I want to be able to go on a holiday
It’s a quote from one of the kids in the Pano documentary Arm Vlaanderen: 5 jaar later [Poor Flanders: 5 years later] that aired a few months ago. In this cold Christmas period where I can enjoy an abundance of food with friends an family in a warm house, I can’t help but remember this documentary. Phara de Aguirre [NL]2[NL] and Sara Van Boxstael [NL] revisit 3 of the families they saw in their first report, Arm Vlaanderen [Poor Flanders], 5 years prior.
This time we get another glimpse at how these families live and whether or not their lives saw any improvement.
Living below the poverty line: the facts
The documentary gives the viewer an unambiguous view in the lives of three families who live on or below the poverty line in Belgium.
What is the poverty line? StatBel sets this line at 60% of the median disposable income for an individual without taking the property into account.
For a single person, this means € 1,139/month. For a single parent with two children in 2017, this is [(€13,670 *1.6)/12 = 1822.67 EUR/month.
Throughout the video, we get statistics about various poverty trends, which are anything but reassuring.
The video present us with a rising trend in subpar living conditions for children living in poverty: 34% in 2013, 37% in 2018. 135,000 candidate-renters for social housing, compared to ~105,000 in 2013.
One statistic is worrisome and doesn’t paint a pretty picture for certain families in Belgium: 40% of the one-parent families in Belgium risk falling into poverty, the same as Romania.
A continuous struggle
From the very beginning, the documentary makers set the tone for the next 38 minutes; you won’t be seeing a lot of smiling faces. Only one parent improved their living conditions in these 5 years by obtaining a certificate of experience-expert poverty and social exclusion [NL] which took 4 tough years to attain, and even then it resulted in a status quo because of the daughter moving out. This meant a loss of 400 EUR in child support, which got countered by the father’s increase in salary.
A stagnation in the living conditions of most children resulted in the older ones taking matters into their own hands and moving out. The aforementioned daughter moved in with her boyfriend, another girl moved in with her divorced father, and a third lived on her own through the help of the Center for Social Work (Dutch: CAW).
Holidays in poverty
When the topic of entertainment and holidays comes up, things I take for granted but are a battle every single time for them, makes me realize once again what kind of luxury position I’m in.
A “simple” trip to a local swimming pool takes weeks of planning and penny-pinching. Trips to London or Disneyland Paris are but a pipe dream for these kids. The children acknowledge the predicament they are in and appear to take it with great stride. They have a (necessary) mature view about their situation and recognize the pains their single parent goes through to give them some form of joy.
The sadness and sorrow these families go through to achieve a bit of happiness or to get any form of improvement in their lives is palpable. Even with all their best efforts, they are barely hanging on. Poor life choices push them back and break one of them resulting in her children going to a boarding school during the week.
Lacking govermental support
What I find striking about the parents’ struggle is the (initial) lack of support from the government and how perverse some supportive measures are.
As one parent points out, a single child below the age of 12 can receive a one-euro-meal but only that child, if a parent accompanies them, they have to pay in full, older children? The same. Additionally, the available support is never communicated to those that need it. They don’t know it exists and because they don’t know it exists, they can’t search for it. Though this issue can be solved by showing a more proactive attitude and ask the social services if there aren’t any additional supportive measures available.
Are you angry sometimes?
Yes. On everything and everyone. […]. On myself also because I have been so stupid. […]. Angry for myself because [I] have not given my children the opportunities they deserve. [I] had always said when I was small, [I] also want opportunities in my life. I want my own home, … a good job. I want to discover the world. And see me sitting here now. 49 years later and nothing achieved yet.
Breaking the vicious poverty circle
You notice the older children realize they will require great effort to break free from the vicious circle they are in. This doesn’t mean each one of them has the same rate of success, unfortunately. It varies greatly. A lot of times it’s a complicated web of unfortunate family circumstances, environment, limited cognitive abilities, etc.
While one girl with clear slow learning capabilities could graduate from the special education (Dutch: BuSO), one of the older boys, aged 17, still has to get his high-school diploma which is still 4 years away because of bad decisions in his earlier teen years. If all goes well, he will get a degree at age 21, the age at which most get their bachelor.
To me, the most painful to watch, was when you get a flashback to 5 years prior to where the boy proclaims that he will do better than his father. He won’t smoke nor drink. He will do good in school and go a for higher education. Reality soon caught up with him and he did all of the things he wouldn’t do.
The girl that was able to live on her own with the help of CAW looks to be on track to break the shackles of poverty that tied down her mother. She recognizes her own shortcomings and is working on them with outside help.
This recognition of one’s own shortcomings isn’t as easy as one of the younger kids unknowingly shows when asked what he would do if he was able to save more money:
Saving … for a car or a motorbike
This simple statement shows that even if they manage to get a degree, the danger of making bad financial choices is ever-present.
You can’t really blame them either I believe. When you are raised by a parent that never thought you the basics of good household finance because they themselves aren’t capable of it, how can you expect the child to learn?
My take-away: breaking the viscious cicle isn't easy
After seeing this documentary for a second time (to be sure what I write here is correct), I recognize and appreciate more what I have an above all what I can do thanks to my parents and surrounding, especially during this cold but festive holiday period.
I take certain things for granted and don’t always realize how easy and comfortable I really have it.
At the end of the day, I’m able to save a ton of money each month, especially compared to the families in the documentary. I can enjoy a lot of delights that life has to offer without worrying about not having enough food on the table. It’s a lot easier for me to splurge ‘a want’ without worrying about not being able to buy the things I ‘need’.
The documentary perfectly shows you can’t improve your way of living and save for early retirement if you already cut a quarter in two to survive.
It seems straightforward but some tend to forget it really isn’t so simple.
Seeing this video made me reflect more on the possibilities that my parents gave me.
Luxury goods such as the latest toys were taken for granted because my parents didn’t have to struggle to get food.
It makes me appreciate what I have and do my best to keep it and gives a better picture of what real financial struggle looks like.