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Thursday's papers: Hardship over delayed support payments, free daycare a local election issue and ski hero set to cash in on big win

Thursday's papers pay tribute to new Finnish ski hero Iivo Niskanen for his gold medal in Lahti on Wednesday. But dailies also cover less inspiring matters, such as the financial distress being suffered by thousands over lengthy delays paying out basic income support, and a growing debate over free daycare in Tampere - an issue that's likely to become a discussion flashpoint in upcoming municipal elections.

Vieremän koulukeskuksen lapset ja aikuiset juhlavat.
Students cheer on Finland's latest ski hero, Iivo Niskanen. Image: Yle

"My rent is late, bills haven’t been paid and I’m running out of food." The plaint of a Helsingin Sanomat reader has become more of a chorus since the Finnish Social Insurance Institution (Kela) took over responsibility for paying out basic income support at the beginning of the year. The financial assistance is available to individuals and families whose income and assets do not cover essential daily expenses.

The flood of complaints pouring into the paper indicates that the transition has not been smooth. Processing times for the social assistance began to stretch back at the beginning of February, although Kela said it had hired hundreds of new employees at the end of 2016 to deal with the new assignment.

When HS reached out to readers to share their experiences, some 300 people responded. Apart from Kela customers awaiting income support payments, the respondents included social and health care workers. Ordinary people spoke of their rent payments falling into arrears and unpaid electricity bills being sent to collectors.

No savings allowed while on benefit

Because people receiving social assistance are not allowed to have savings, the bottleneck in payments is driving households into real financial distress. Parents of small children said they were rationing their own meals to ensure their children could eat. Pensioners owned up to taking blood pressure medication every other day and skipping depression meds. In one case, a reader was unable to pay for two surgical procedures.

According to HS, one group of people is suffering from delays caused by Kela’s extended processing times. The second group involves people who previously received the financial aid from their municipalities without any problems, but are now being turned down, or are receiving separate positive decisions one month at a time.

Kela has admitted that mistakes were made but said that the situation is being rectified. All the same, the agency said local offices are receiving visits from 12,000 customers every day and workers are fielding 20,000 phone calls daily. However it has not been able to say when it will be able to cut through the customer service backlog.

Municipal elex preview: Parties divided on free daycare in Tampere

Coming off the presses in Tampere, daily Aamulehti reports that free daycare is emerging as a headline issue in upcoming local government elections in the populous region. The paper tested the temperature of politicians on the matter and found support for the proposal among major opposition parties, while all government coalition partners were sceptical about how to pay for it.

Tampere Social Democrats said that they plan to hold the party line on the issue. SDP chair Antti Rinne had previously said he intended to make free daycare a major talking point in the municipal election. Local Green politicians also support the idea, but favour a phased approach, beginning with free half-day care to be expanded at a later stage.

For its part, the Left Alliance sees free daycare as an important factor in offering children a level playing field early in life. However the party acknowledges that money for the proposal would have to come from somewhere - it’s proposing taxation to finance the measure. Since taxes in Finland are progressive, it would mean that better-off parents would pay more.

Although the National Coalition Party has yet to find a common voice on this issue, local chapter chair Aleksi Jäntti said that in Tampere at least, free daycare is not an option in the current economic situation. If it were to go ahead, it would require state support, he noted.

The Centre Party’s local arm shared Jäntti’s view, saying that eliminating daycare fees is just not a realistic option at the moment. Finns Party Tampere chair Terhi Kiemunki told AL that her party opposes the proposal because Tampere simply cannot afford it.

IS: Niskanen's turn to cash in on championship win

Thursday’s papers are all celebrating Finnish cross-country skier Iivo Niskanen, following his upset win over rival Norway in Wednesday’s men’s 15-kilometre classic cross country race at the World Ski Championship in Lahti.

Local press basked in the afterglow of Finland’s first individual gold at a major competition since 2011 and the fact that the win denied Norway a record 100th world championship cross country gold. But tabloid daily Ilta-Sanomat looked to the future to speculate on how Niskanen can now cash in on the win.

The paper turned to its in-house ski expert Jari Isometsä, who estimated that Niskanen will walk away from the games with a one-time payment of some 50,000 euros for his cross country win. According to Isometsä, this is just the beginning however, as Niskanen will have much more muscle to negotiate substantial endorsement deals with equipment manufacturers.

IS referenced tax records showing that when Matti Heikkinen won the world championship in 2011, his annual income over the next five years soared to over 100,000 euros. Tax data show that after winning gold in the men’s team sprint at the 2015 winter Olympics, Niskanen’s taxable income was 47,625 euros during all of 2015. With his glorious victory on Wednesday, all that is set to change.

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