Anyone who wants to fight inequality will quickly look to The Hague. On the formation table is a large pile of reports advocating reform. Influential government advisers have already made proposals for a fairer tax system, the introduction of a ‘broad first year’ of three years and far-reaching curtailment of flexible work.
But many hundreds of aldermen in the Netherlands are also concerned with inequality – in the areas of education, unemployment, housing, care and poverty reduction. In their towns and villages they see the consequences of this inequality up close. Children who come to school with a language delay and an empty stomach. Unlivable neighborhoods. People who remain unemployed for years, sometimes generations.
NRC said two aldermen who have made combating inequality a spearhead. From the ‘welfare capital’ Rotterdam, with relatively the most social assistance claimants of all Dutch municipalities. And from Heerlen, which is in the top five of municipalities with the greatest inequality of opportunity for children in several studies.
Although both aldermen have wishes for the next cabinet, they mainly talk about how they themselves make a difference.
Also read: Opportunity inequality in the Netherlands: anyone who grows up in Emmen will never catch up with an Alphenaar again
Alderman Richard Moti, Rotterdam: ‘The government must give unemployed people confidence’
Rotterdam has the least educated population of the forty largest cities. This leads to two persistent problems: long-term unemployment and ‘revolving door unemployment’. The second category of people “finds a flex job from welfare”, says alderman Richard Moti (Work and Income, PvdA), “and will return to welfare within a few months or a year”. Their position is hopeless. Employers don’t want to invest in them. “If they find work at all, it is flexible work.”
That is why the alderman presented a training fund last year. People on welfare can receive a maximum of 2,500 euros per year for an education or training that increases their job prospects, up to MBO-4 level. “Earlier school leavers can now still improve their position on the labor market.”
Rotterdam is investing 14 million euros in the fund, financed from the sale of its shares in energy company Eneco. “It is a luxury that we have that money,” says Moti.
The alderman realizes that other municipalities will have more difficulty making money available for this. The social assistance budget that the national government provides municipalities for the guidance of the unemployed has been heavily cut in the last ten years. As a result, out of financial need, municipalities mainly started to help the unemployed with the best job opportunities. After all, they do not need expensive courses or intensive supervision.
Rotterdam also initially divided its social assistance file into two groups. About 17,000 people were seen as ‘promising’. They received guidance and a training budget. About 21,000, mainly older and long-term unemployed, received little attention. “They never actually had any contact with the municipality,” says Moti. “And if they had contact, it was enforcement. They were then asked how they would fill in their mandatory consideration: with voluntary work or informal care.”
When he took office in 2018, Moti decided to guide all welfare recipients again. The municipality also had to reserve extra money for this, on top of the budget of the central government. So far, those investments have paid for themselves, says Moti, because the number of social assistance benefits has fallen sharply.
What motivates Moti most are the stories of people who find a job again after all these years. For example, he met a man in his late fifties who had been unemployed for more than ten years and had received no guidance from the municipality. Now he suddenly got that help, including in obtaining a driver’s license. It led to a job in the port of Rotterdam, as a fire protection officer. “He was so happy,” says Moti. “Most of all because he could finally visit his family outside the city. He was unable to do that on welfare, without a car and without money for public transport. Now he felt like he was part of it again.”
Most people do want to work, says Moti. But then the government also has to give them confidence. Before 2018, Rotterdam was a proud executor of the strict social assistance rules. In return, many welfare recipients had to put paper in a yellow vest for fifteen weeks. “I thought that was terrible,” says Moti. “We have deleted that.”
A welfare recipient once told Moti that he already gets palpitations when a letter from the municipality on the doorstep. “I understood that. Because our letter of invitation for an interview contained a threat: if you do not comply with the agreements, your benefit may be stopped under the Participation Act and a fine may be imposed.”
Now the letter is more positive in tone, and the conversations are more often held in the vicinity of social assistance recipients. “We notice that people take a more open attitude as a result. Which is very logical. When you feel the threat of fines, you are much more careful and closed.”
In the meantime, the central government obliges municipalities to strictly check whether welfare recipients comply with all obligations, such as consideration, language requirement and cost-sharing standard. Moti thinks it’s a waste of time. “In the little time we have, I want us to be able to help people move forward. And do not tick all the obligations of the Participation Act.”
Also read: Lodewijk Asscher is shocked in Heerlen-North: ‘The Hague must help’
Alderman Jordy Clemens, Heerlen: ‘If you can take that stress out of the families, you already create air
Anyone who wants to combat inequality of opportunity in Heerlen will soon discover “what kind of world is hidden behind it”, says Jordy Clemens (SP), alderman for Youth and Education in that municipality. At school “children come in without having eaten.” And: “Divorces are fought out with the children around.”
He knows that it makes no sense to tackle inequality at school alone. “If a child doesn’t eat properly, how can you expect them to learn grammar?”
Clemens knows the figures: in Heerlen there is a large gap between the educational performance of children from rich and poor families. The level of education is relatively low. And on average there are more early school leavers than elsewhere. “But the root of these problems is usually poverty, psychological problems, parents who have difficulties with life.”
Heerlen has a relatively large number of teenage mothers, single-parent families and babies who are born too early or with a low weight – which may indicate an unhealthy lifestyle of the mother. That is why youth policy starts well before the birth of the child. “We help people who want to have children with the question: are you sure you want a child, and that this is the right time?” Sometimes a counselor can help get rid of an addiction first, or get a job and a more stable income.”
The municipality has bought two baby dolls. Every now and then the doll starts to cry. “Then you must comfort and feed him, otherwise you will drive him completely mad.” If mentally retarded young people want a baby, “it can help to give that doll,” says Clemens. “Try that for a week and see how it is for you. Then many young parents come to a different decision.”
Poor parents help the municipality by paying for necessities such as a backpack or bicycle for their child, to membership in a sports club or scouting. School swimming has also been reintroduced. “Because children move little and poor children get their swimming diploma much less often.”
Whoever fights poverty fights inequality of opportunity. Clemens is convinced of this. “It’s all about the circumstances in which children are born and grow up. If we can improve these, children will start primary school with fewer disadvantages.”
According to the SP alderman, the cabinet should combat poverty by raising the minimum wage and social assistance benefit. “We know that poverty leads to stress. And that stress is a major cause of divorce and child abuse. So if you can take that stress out of the families, you already create air.”
Only when a child has a safe and healthy living environment, says Clemens, does room for development arise.
That was also the case with Heerlen itself. The city in South Limburg has fallen into disrepair after the mine closures since the 1960s. Highly educated and young people left. At the low point in the 1990s, says Clemens, “poverty misery, drug abuse and prostitution manifested themselves openly in the streets.”
Since the turn of the century, the municipality has invested heavily in reducing nuisance. “From that safe environment, the city was able to develop further and think about its identity. That’s what you want your children to do.”
In primary schools, Clemens notices that teachers have too little time to teach. “They are making sandwiches for children who have no food with them, and they are separating parents at the school gate. Wash clothes for children.”
He believes that the national government should allocate much more money to schools in vulnerable neighbourhoods. “It would be so nice if they could hire a concierge again. That there will be air again.”
As responsible for the housing of schools, the alderman prevented the closure of the only school in the ‘vulnerable neighbourhood’ Passart, Heerlen-Noord. According to the rules, the school had had too few students for years. “But if one neighborhood needed a school, it was this one.”
Clemens had a new building constructed, with a community center for welfare work and volunteers. “So that the school becomes a linchpin in the neighborhood.” Since that decision three years ago, Clemens says, “the number of students has almost doubled.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 15, 2021