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Finland’s poor at nearly one million

Only highly educated middle-class citizens and labourers are safe in Finnish society, according to sociology professor Juho Saari. Depression and loneliness caused by unemployment are up in Finland, and the poor are not treated well, the professor says.

Image: Mika Hirvonen / Yle

Professor Juho Saari of the University of Eastern Finland says that about 800,000 Finns are currently suffering from temporary or short-term unemployment. The term refers to people whose income has fallen below poverty levels due to temporary constraints such as studies or brief bouts of unemployment.

The group of long-term unemployed currently numbers at 100,000 people. Homeless people and breadline customers are counted among long-term jobless. According to the generally accepted definition, people living below the poverty line have to survive on less than 60 percent of the median Finnish income. This means that in 2009, for instance, anyone earning less than 1080 euros a month was poor by definition.

“More than 20,000 Finns are fed weekly by breadline food,” Saari says.

Finnish employment figures are looking bleak, with no new jobs or economic upswings on the horizon. The unemployment rate in the south-central city of Lahti stood at 18.7 percent in July, currently the highest among large cities.

Long-term unemployment and the resulting poverty cause numerous problems in society. For many, the financial want is often short-term, and may not lead to health or welfare issues.

Long jobless periods cause despair

A Lahti woman, who wants to remain anonymous for fear of being branded as jobless, says she spent 500 days unemployed. She filled in countless applications and did in fact receive some job interview calls. On many occasions, job acquisition came very close.

The 50-something woman thought of herself as unemployable. She didn’t suffer from outright poverty thanks to a working husband. Since then, she has secured a new job, but says her time between jobs was mentally exhausting, with little or no opportunities for hobbies.

“They were lonely days,” she recalls. “A person pines for a certain kind of rhythm in their life. Housework only carries one so far.”

The woman’s close acquaintances include a number of long-term unemployed, some of them single parents. She says she is amazed at how people are able to support themselves and their families when times turn dire.

“I respect anyone who is able to raise a family in the face of this kind of financial struggle,” she says. “Many of my friends have lost hope of ever rejoining working life. Their poverty has paralysed them.”

Many people privy to the private lives of the long-term unemployed deny claims of Finland’s current basic social security making people passive.

”I get angry when I hear claims like these,” the woman says. “I’d say that an overwhelming majority of people want to work and apply for jobs incessantly. It would be a horror if social security measures were downsized in any way.”

Breadlines may soon proliferate with current policies

Professor Saari says that central to the phenomenon of sliding into poverty is the question of whether the situation persists and whether peoples’ meagre incomes can sustain their expenses in the long run.

”If they cannot, we are looking at a land of breadlines,” Saari warns.

The side effects of being underprivileged and poor are the burden of people living in long-term financial duress especially, or those who are the worst off. Indebtedness, homelessness and substance abuse go hand in hand with long-term suffering.

”Poverty comes with mental health problems, the crumbling of social networks and loneliness,” Saari continues. “It’s a general state of the wearing away of the most basic things that hold us together.”

People spending lives of long-term poverty often take on the identity of the destitute, the professor says. Even if such a person is a matriarch or a grandfather, labels like these no longer stick.

The policies of growth and employment endorsed by Finnish politics, as described by Saari, are not in place for the wellbeing of the underprivileged.

”It’s great policy, if you happen to be highly educated or middle-class,” he says. “And physical labourers are still somewhat protected by the trends in Finnish politics.”

”But those who have fallen outside of the job market are simply not taken care of by the current system,” Saari goes on, referring to the high poverty rates among the elderly. “Your run-of-the-mill pensioner has not seen the kind of improvement they should, and could.”

Saari describes Finland as a socioeconomically charged class society. The gaps between different extremes have continued to broaden, he says.

“Those in the direst of straits have become veritable aliens in our midst,” Saari says.

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