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Poor Flanders: Living below the poverty line

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.

The documentary "Arm Vlaanderen: 5 jaar later"
We revisit 3 families 5 years later who live in poverty. Government promises were made to reduce child poverty by half by 2020. Are we getting there? A documentary by Phara de Aguirre & Sara Van Boxstael.
Poor Flanders: 37% live in a poor quality home
Translation of the text: 37% of the children in poverty live in a home of inferior quality. 5 years ago it was 34%.

The cold hard facts

The documentary gives the viewer a clear and unambiguous view in the lives of three families who live on or below the poverty line in Belgium.
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/month.

Throughout the video, we get statistics about various poverty trends, which are anything but reassuring.
At the beginning of the video, we are presented 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 really 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 happy faces. Only one of the parents really improved their living conditions in these 5 years by obtaining a certificate of experience-expert poverty and social exclusion[NL] which took 4 difficult years to attain, and even then it resulted in a status quo due to the daughter moving out. This meant a loss of € 400 in child support which luckily got countered by the father’s increase in salary.
The 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 decided to live 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.

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, I want 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.

Getting a degree and do better than dad.

5 years earlier he knew what he had to do. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out as he had planned.

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?

Graudation BuSO
Graudation ceremony students BuSO from the documentary "Poor Flanders: 5 years later".
Changing things for the better
Through the help of CAW, she's able to break free and is trying to improve her life one step at a time.
Saving... for a car or motorbike
Dreams of earning more money... to spend it again.

My take-away

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 bit on 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 and can’t find a better. It seems straightforward but some tend to forget it really isn’t so simple.

I will act all high and mighty and say by seeing this, it will drastically change my way of living.
I will, however, try to reflect more and appreciate what I have and do my best to keep it. It also gives a better picture of what real financial struggle looks like.

For my Dutch speaking readers that are interested in the documentary, you can find it on vrt.be/vrtnu.

This Post Has 3 Comments
  1. Stories like this one (and ones I hear in The Netherlands) make me think of how lucky we have been. But the other hand is this. It’s not only been luck, but also hard work and making the right decisions in life.

    I’m definitely looking at how I can help people in need. But I find it hard sometimes, because I don’t want to incentivise making bad decisions. Do you understand the struggle?

    I might look into become a “schuldhulpmaatje” (helping people in debt to restructure their finances and life) but the time commitment is what’s making me feel unsure about this.

    1. “It’s not only been luck, but also hard work and making the right decisions in life.”
      I can definitely agree with that. A lot of people can’t seem to think critically for just a few seconds before making a decision, either because they never learned critical thinking from home themselves, because of laziness (not knowing but also not bothering to learn is imo laziness as well).

      The difficulty lies with what you do with people like at least one of the women in this documentary. One of the single parents was deemed not fit to properly operate in a professional working environment by the “Gespecialiseerde Trajectbepalings-en Begeleidingsdienst” (GTB) together with the “Rijksdienst voor Arbeidsvoorziening” (RVA); though she doesn’t specify why exactly.
      She gets support from the government for that, but even with that she still lives below the poverty line set by the Belgian government themselves. I know it’s not easy to work out a system where you protect these people and at the same time prevent abuse by those that don’t need it.
      The guy that got his certificate of experience-expert poverty and social exclusion states it correctly. Even if you find a job for something as simple as a cleaning lady. At most, you get something like € 1400 – € 1500 per month. The problem is, that the poverty line for a single parent with two kids is at € 1822.67/month. Incl. child allowance she is probably just above the poverty line. So, even if she could find any job, the chances of saving and working herself out of poverty would be very difficult to achieve.

  2. Thanks for this article!
    Reading plenty of FIRE blogs, you come along all sorts of insights but rarely touch this interesting topic. There seems to by a cycle of poverty which requires lots of energy to break. It is certainly beliefs and habits passed on from parents to kids which contribute to the behaviors we see which reinforce the horrible effects of poverty.
    It would be naive to believe that breaking this cycle of poverty can be easier. I believe it does not only require lots of investment in education but certainly also in forming beliefs and habits which favor sustainable and positive life decisions.
    All the best
    Lukas – author of myfinancialfreedom.blog

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