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Europe

Europe's Rich Facade Hides a Looming Problem with Poverty

As rich countries focus on reducing poverty in the developing world, attention is deflected from a looming problem in their own backyards - latest figures indicate that about 33 million citizens in the EU are poor.

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Not an uncommon sight in Europe anymore

At a time when world summits are marked by international leaders grappling with problems of poverty, survival and hunger, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and in South Asia, talking about want in Europe almost seems like a joke.

But there’s nothing funny about the latest figures released by the European Union on its needier citizens. The EU estimates that about 33 million citizens of the affluent continent live in poverty, with "poverty" in this case defined as living on less than half the average income of one’s country.

Poor doesn’t only mean less money

Though that definition of poverty may appear relative, for those affected, it’s very concrete.

A document published by the EU’s Social and Economic Committee describes that being poor can mean more than a lack of income and financial resources.

Those who are poor often feel vulnerable in society and have problems getting access to education, health care, jobs and loans. The poor are also less likely to be informed about political processes and debates or participate in them.

EU statistics reveal that England has the largest gap between rich and poor in the whole of Europe; Austria has the smallest.

The new report on poverty by Caritas Europe, a Catholic relief organisation, details the social and economic situation in 43 European countries.

It points out that the jobless, single parents, families with several children, old people, asylum-seekers, migrants as well as members of national minorities are especially threatened by penury.

Certain regions more prone to impoverishment

The Caritas Europe report indicates that poverty also tends to be concentrated in certain regions in Europe.

Some of these regions have been dominated by agricultural activity for centuries and the economic development of the past decades has passed them by. Others have been scarred by booms and busts in business cycles and markets.

The European Union has been trying, with some success, to provide a boost to some of the poorer areas by providing targeted financial aid.

This year alone, Brussels set aside almost 33,8 million euro ($33.4 million) – 35 percent of the entire EU budget - for financial support to poor regions.

In Germany, the newly formed Eastern federal states - those which made up the former East Germany - have qualified for EU aid.

EU enlargement biggest hurdle to tackling poverty

But despite financial aid from Brussels, the EU faces a huge challenge as it prepares to take 10 new countries from Eastern Europe into the fold by 2004.

The enlargement is estimated to add 100 million to the EU's current population - increasing it by 25% - and experts fear a huge surge in poverty and inequality.

At present all 15 EU member states have living standards within 25 percent of the EU average.

But the largest candidate state, Poland - with a population larger than 10 of the current EU members – has a per capita GDP of less than half the EU average.

It is worse in some other candidate states. Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania have only about one-quarter the per capita GDP of the current members.

No only are these candidate countries poorer, but inequalities within these states are also much more pronounced.