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You are here : Home > News > Speeches > June 2005 > Speech by Marie-Josée Jacobs, Minister for Family and Integration, at the 4th European Meeting of People Experiencing Poverty - Brussels 10-11 June 2005
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Speech by Marie-Josée Jacobs, Minister for Family and Integration, at the 4th European Meeting of People Experiencing Poverty - Brussels 10-11 June 2005

Date of Speech : 10-06-2005 - 11-06-2005

Place : Brussels

Speaker : Marie-Josée Jacobs, Minister for Family and Integration and for Equal Opportunities

Policy area : Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs

Event : 4th European Meeting of People experiencing poverty, Brussels, 10-11 June 2005

A year ago, I had the honour of attending as a guest the opening session of the "3rd European Meeting of People Experiencing Poverty," organised by the Irish Presidency of the European Union.

In organising this 3rd Meeting, the Irish Presidency took over the commitment of the Belgian Presidency which, in 2001, organised the first meeting of this type.

The Irish Presidency also took over the commitment of the Greek Presidency which, after organising the 2nd Meeting in 2003, suggested that the next European Presidencies include such recurring meetings in the annual work plan.

In addressing the participants of the 3rd Meeting in May 2004, I informed them of my project to take over in 2005 by organising a 4th meeting in the framework of Luxembourg’s Presidency of the European Union.

Today, this project has come to fruition and it is a great pleasure for me to welcome you.

I believe I can say to you that the 4th Meeting attests to the fact that this type of event is really beginning to be institutionalised as an essential component of the community social inclusion process.

If the Luxembourg Presidency is in a position to contribute to this institutionalisation, it is also because of the considerable support it has received.

This support has come from the Government of Belgium and the Government of Austria, and from the Employment and Social Affairs Directorate of the European Commission.


As with earlier ones, the 4th Meeting answers one of the four common objectives that the European Union adopted in the fight against poverty.

This objective calls for the mobilisation of all players and asks the Member States to give a voice to people experiencing exclusion, allowing them to be heard on their situation and on the policies developed for them.

I have organised the 4th Meeting to show my commitment to this objective.

This commitment is based on a deep conviction.

In order to share this conviction with you, I shall use the words of Professor O’Cinnéide of the Irish University of Maynooth who chaired the 3rd Meeting.

In the report published after the 3rd meeting, he wrote the following:

"Political strategists with the best intentions and with the best informations cannot claim to develop policies, programmes or practices to fight poverty without having an idea of the meaning of poverty, as the only people who can talk about it are the people experiencing poverty themselves."

Madame Quintin spoke in the same vein during the 3rd Meeting when she said:

"The era when policies were concocted by a handful of civil servants who ‘knew’ what was best is over. Today, what the concerned people say carries more weight in political decisions."

During the two-day Meeting, the members of the many national delegations will be given the floor to speak as ambassadors of the underprivileged citizens of the European Union, whose number continues to be of concern.

The theme that will be explored is the image of poverty and the impact this image has on inclusion policies.

What a broad topic!

I will begin my introductory remarks on the subject with two quotations from Paul Ricoeur, the great French philosopher, who passed away in late May.

The first quotation reveals Paul Ricoeur’s humanism:

"The shortest path from you to yourself is via someone else."

The second quotation summarises the topic brought up by the 4th Meeting:

"The look of others can liberate us but can also enclose us."

People experiencing poverty and social exclusion are often enclosed in the image formed of them through the look of others, in the look of those who do not know what poverty is.

In preparing for the 4th Meeting, "EAPN" compiled a document of delegates’ remarks on certain topics during the three previous Meetings.

In this compilation I read the following simple and accurate sentence: "The image of the poor is not correct."

Very often, too often, the image of the poor person is a stereotype.

I shall illustrate these negative representations using an example I know well as Minister in charge of the guaranteed minimum wage.

Since 1986 Luxembourg has had the right to a minimum guaranteed income, commonly designated by its French abbreviation, RMG.

Pursuant to the founding principles of the Rule of Law, the individual exercises his citizenship and participates in community life by asserting his rights.

However, 19 years after it was created, the right to guaranteed minimum income continues to be tied to a social labelling process.

These labels are an attack on the identity of those who assert their right to a guaranteed minimum income; they are assigned the status of "RMGist."

This status stigmatises them and distorts the perception of the social realities.

Confining people - who assert their right to the guaranteed minimum income - to the status of "RMGist" means designating them as a separate category of people, even though they form a heterogeneous population like all the others.

Seeing the individual only as an "RMGist," his identity and his self-image are called into question: One aspect of his situation, namely a problem of insufficient resources, determines who he is in every way!

To use Paul Ricoeur’s words: The look of others encloses the individual in the image of the "RMGist."

Many of you suffer from this enclosure.

They also know how difficult it is to pull out of it. Although you are a unique individual, like no other, the image that others assign to you is still that of the "RMGist."

You know how to sing or knit, you’re an accomplished athlete or you play the violin like Paganini, you are a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, a committed union member, a resolute feminist, a serious or optimistic person... ,

in the eyes of others you remain the "RMGist," the one who receives welfare.

I shall always oppose the use of this term and the image it conveys, because this image is belittling and depersonalising.

If the Meeting that brings us together today is defined as a "Meeting of people experiencing poverty," it is in no way innocent!

Photos of the participants appear on the first pages of the report of the 3rd Meeting.

The choice of publishing them was not innocent either! One does not see abstract entities in these photos.

These photos show individuals:

Men and women, some old, some younger, human beings with different complexions and expressions, with particular distinctive signs that make it easy to recognise them.

These photos convey a strong message:

If poverty means lacking income and gainful employment, lacking social strength, power, participation in social life and status, the men and women who are lacking these things cannot be summarised using the term "the poor."

First and foremost, these men and women are "people" and next and only next are they "people experiencing poverty and social exclusion." 

At a previous Meeting, one delegation demanded the following:

"Excluded people must give an active image of themselves, of their ability to take initiatives to change their life, and to speak in associations."

This requirement expresses the rejection of the negative image of poverty.

However, the power of images or representations goes much further.

Since they go hand-in-hand with the explanations of poverty, they influence political approaches to poverty.

The Researcher Peter Townsend, who has been most interested in poverty issues, spoke unequivocally on this subject:

"Any explanation of poverty includes an implicit prescription of policy."

Therefore, the 4th Meeting did the right thing by addressing the images and perceptions of poverty!

In a report written in October 2002 for the European Commission, more specifically for the Directorate led by Madame Quintin, researcher Serge Paugam suggested the following hypothesis:

"A country will be less likely to develop ambitious social policies if many of its citizens regard poverty as a problem of individual responsibility and, conversely, that a country will more readily devote resources to the fight against poverty if its inhabitants regard this problem as the effect of systematic injustice which condemns its most deprived victims to one uniform destiny."

In this context it is my pleasure to quote the Chairman of the 4th Meeting.

Professor Schaber has indeed been studying the relationship between individuals and poverty since 1974.

In a study on persistent poverty conducted for the Commission in 1982, he observed that "half of the people questioned point to the individual as the cause of poverty, and the other half point to society."

How did these perceptions of poverty evolve?

The 2002 Paugam Report gives an answer to this question.

This report shows that in all of the 14 Member States that were included, 17% of the people questioned explain poverty by laziness whereas 31% explain it by injustice.

The differences in national perceptions are immense, and thus 29% of Portuguese but only 8% of Swedes see laziness as the cause of poverty, and if in the eastern part of Germany, 50% explain poverty by injustice, only 12% feel the same way in Denmark.

The aforementioned report also states that, overall, the "laziness" percentage of the explanation is on the rise whilst the "injustice" percentage is falling sharply.

This increasingly unfavourable perception of poverty by the general public worries me.

Some could see this as an encouragement for weakening social inclusion policies.

I am not one of them!

On the contrary, my opinion is that in a European Union with 69 million people who are exposed to the risk of poverty, and 14 million poor workers, there is reason to strengthen the social inclusion policies.

We often speak of these policies in terms of the fight against poverty:

The fight against these false images of poverty that can lead to the development of false policies for people who live in poverty should go hand-in-hand with this struggle.

The work of this 4th Meeting is meant to identify the best ways to achieve this.

And so I hope that your exchanges are productive!

Thank you for your attention.

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This page was last modified on : 13-06-2005

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