The number of people living on low incomes in Finland is increasing, but even so, the well-off have a hard time understanding the comprehensive effects of poverty. Professor Juho Saari reminds us that poverty cannot simply be solved by buying cheap food.
In recent months, there has been a lot of debate in the comment sections of Finnish newspapers. People have argued over who actually counts as poor, and they have also doled out advice on how to live on very limited means. According to those giving the advice, the forests are full of berries, root vegetables are cheap, and clothes can be bought at the flea market.
But why do people not heed such wisdom?
“It may be very hard for the well-to-do to understand the burden of long-term poverty and scarcity,” says Juho Saari, who was recently appointed professor of social and health policy at the University of Tampere.
Continuous scarcity causes permanent stress and status anxiety, and it decreases functional ability. According to Saari, people need a certain degree of financial and social autonomy in their lives, otherwise they feel bad. If their unavoidable expenses are permanently larger than their income, people have less autonomy. Their lives become hell, especially if they are stuck in a long term rut.
“Long-term poverty has an effect on people’s identities. The longer one has interlinked financial, health and social problems, the harder it is to get back to normal.”
Saari defines poverty as a situation in which a person’s standard of living, quality of life and lifestyle are permanently qualitatively worse than the majority of people. Not everyone becomes poor, even though unemployment keeps increasing: a large part of the middle class is protected by education and work experience, and they often have better health and social contacts.
In Finland, about 100,000 people are doing very badly financially and have been living on last resort benefits for a significant period of time. Experiences of over-indebtedness and scarcity are also becoming more frequent.
“People who are over-indebted are faring the worst, as are those who live alone and whose regular expenses – often accommodation costs – remain at the same level even though they lose their incomes from wages and benefits. In order to survive and bridge the gap, such people must seek unofficial support by joining breadlines or visiting charity food banks,” Saari says.
According to Saari, the ability to flourish in the Finnish welfare state is de facto based on steady contracts. If a person has regular employment, a home and related contracts, a spouse and a regular credit history, the welfare state provides transfers and services sufficient for the person to flourish and live a good life. The system may also work when a person is “just” unemployed, but if a person is both unemployed and depressed, the safety nets become less effective, despite the fact that such people are in need of even more support. The welfare state does not offer enough to unemployed people who suffer from a chronic illness or who have no credit history or regular home.
The poor are also about four times lonelier than the rest of the population, even though other people provide the best safety net. Loneliness decreases health and feelings of well-being.
However, Saari offers equal treatment rather than a sense of community as the remedy.
“Like poverty, loneliness is above all a social question.”
There is a lot of topical research on poverty in Finland. According to Saari, people, including politicians, have also heard the research results.
He does not find anything to complain about in the media coverage, either: the media has highlighted poverty in Finland at least moderately well. Even though those who are doing better argue about the definition of who really is poor, Saari says that the middle classes show compassion and solidarity towards the poor.
“But those who are doing better like to keep their social distance from the poor,” he says.
In the debate, people are divided into “us” and “them”, and issues are labelled as “our” and “their” issues. Those who are doing better find it important to secure their own advantages – to protect their earnings, occupational health care and free choice of schools.
“The lower the social position, the less people think that we are all in this together,” Saari says.
If the current trend continues, Finns will become more different from each other in terms of standards of living, quality of life and lifestyle.
“That does not benefit anyone. The more poverty we have, the more rigid our society will become.”
It will also mean more conflicts and mistrust between socio-economic and status groups. There will be consequences if the lower classes can no longer trust the authorities.
Something should be done: even though there is now less money for public spending, Saari thinks that we have several reasonable ways of making people’s everyday lives easier.
Since the biggest reason for the breadlines is expensive housing, affordable accommodation is at the top of the list. Municipalities should find ways to rent homes from their owners and to sub-let them at a reduced price. If the leases became long-term, more homes would presumably be offered for rent. Long term leases would have the additional benefit of protecting the tenants better.
Saari also supports establishing a positive credit register. This entails investigating a person’s credit history more thoroughly before a loan is granted so that information on any previous loans and the ability to pay them back can be taken into account.
“The most important thing is to walk together with the person who has fallen through the safety nets. It is not enough that public officials only deal with poor people’s issues on the phone or via the internet. We should go and reach out to the poor wherever they are, for example in the breadlines or through health care services,” Saari says.
Text: Marianna Laiho
Photograph: Jonne Renvall
Professor of social and health policy at the University of Tampere. Saari started in his professorship at the School of Health Sciences in August 2016.
Saari researches differences in health and well-being and is especially interested in the socially excluded. Saari came to Tampere from the University of Eastern Finland, where he still has a part-time post as professor of welfare sociology.
Saari has edited several books on topics such as loneliness in Finland (for example, Yksinäisten Suomi, Gaudeamus 2016). He is currently working on books on social security interdependencies, the European Union and the welfare state.
Saari lives in Kerava. He is married and has one teenage and two adult children.
Hobbies: Spending time in archives and trying to lead a proper life.