Switzerland is the wealthiest country in the world. Despite this fact, over half a million people live below the poverty line. Christine Kümin is one of them. She talks to us about day-to-day worries, feelings of shame and hopes for the future.
“They’ve got to work harder!” “I’m not living in the lap of luxury either but I’m still not a parasite.” These are just two prejudices faced by people like the Kümin family. Poverty in Switzerland? That doesn’t exist – there can’t be any. Our standard of living is far too high for that and the social safety net is far too tightly meshed.
Wrong. It doesn’t take much to shake a stable existence. “My divorce was the beginning of all evil for me,” says Christine Kümin. The 36-year-old lives with her two daughters in Wädenswil, Zurich. “Including child support and job seekers’ allowance”, she has CHF 3’000 a month at her disposal. Once you’ve paid health insurance premiums, rent and hidden extras, you’re always left with the same amount at the end of the day: almost nothing. And so ordinary things like winter shoes, a dental appointment or admission to the swimming pool suddenly become an unaffordable luxury. Fortunately, there are organisations that support people in her situation, smiles the trained social worker. “Winterhilfe” (Winter Aid), for example, which allows my children to participate in a sports club. This is great because they have contact with playmates and get enough exercise.” As well as this, she joins the long queue forming in front of the food distribution station once a week. “I am grateful for any kind of support. Even though I struggled to accept it at the beginning.”
The fear of speaking out
The struggle Christine Kümin is talking about also goes by another name: shame. Many of those affected do not dare to disclose their current situation, be it to those around them or to aid agencies. A study by the Bern University of Applied Sciences estimates that one in four Swiss citizens does not receive social welfare payments despite being entitled to them. The fears of negative reactions and social isolation are too great. Christine has learned to overcome these fears. “When I first started to get the food, I thought: God, I hope nobody sees me. I wanted the ground to swallow me up; my self-esteem was on the ropes.” Nowadays, it’s a different story. She sees these difficult circumstances as an important learning curve in her life. And says with a confident tone: “I am who I am. And I will not allow my value to be defined by money.”
Over half a million people affected
In a society where many people have many things, poverty is still a taboo subject. According to the Federal Statistical Office, 600’000 people living in Switzerland are considered poor. This means single households with an income of less than CHF 2’200 a month, four-person households (two adults, two children) with less than CHF 4’000 a month. However, the most vulnerable are single parents with children under the age of 18 – and people without any qualifications. Nevertheless, there is a small glimmer of hope for her: Only a small proportion of the population (2.5%) is affected by poverty for more than a year. Within a year, many people get an income again which lifts them above the poverty line. This is also what Christine wants: “my goal is to find a part-time job. This way, I could reconcile work and family. I’m trying my best, but it hasn't worked out so far. I think that single parents in general have a tough job – also in the eyes of employers.”
Despite this, she doesn’t let her situation get her down. She continues to write application after application. And she dreams of doing things with her children which are the order of the day for others, such as eating out, skiing or buying clothes she likes in shops. She finds it equally important to encourage others. “Have the courage to talk about your financial situation. There is nothing that you should be ashamed of. You’ll see new doors opening up to you.”
This year, Mobility is supporting “Winterhilfe” with a considerable amount of money. Winterhilfe is an association that specifically addresses hidden poverty in Switzerland. Its work includes equipping children with school materials, distributing packages of clothing and contributing to health costs.
We hope that our commitment can go a small way to helping people in need.