This column first appeared in Malta Today
A lot has been said about the one-off Government cheque being sent to all households to compensate for the increase in the price of bread and milk.
Depending on whether you are a family or single, most of the country’s population this week has been receiving a cheque of either €35 or €15 through the post. The initial news announced by Finance Minister Edward Scicluna was met with a derisive scoff at the paltry amount and the very bitter symbolism of this administraiton throwing crumbs at us voters while those at the top rake in tens of thousands of Euros.
But then when the cheques actually started popping through the letter boxes, there was a shift. Small as it was, some people demanded to know why they hadn’t yet received theirs. The 153 freephone information service actually crashed with the amount of calls being received. Since the cheque was sent to all those who appear in the ARMS, Identity Malta or Social Security databases, this handout brought another significant issue out into the open: the number of foreign tenants whose landlord has not registered them on the ARMS bill, which has been an ongoing battle for many years. Some tenants who had not received the cheque quickly realised that they may not even be listed in the other data bases either, pointing to even more serious repercussions. For all intents and purposes, for the Government, despite being a resident with all your documents in order, working here and paying National Insurance contributions, this effectively means you don’t exist.
The paltry sum being doled out soon starting taking on a more weighty meaning, both for those who have been living here for a while, as well as those who may only be here temporarily. The constant ebb and flow of economic migrants, and the frequency with which people change apartments (usually due to a hike in the rent) has obviously put a strain on our bureaucracy which cannot keep track of all this. Not for the first time, the country has been revealed to be clearly ill-equipped to deal with a situation of its own making.
There was also another thorny aspect to this blessed cheque when some women in the process of separating from their husbands lamented that the cheque still came in his name. Others, despite being happily married, also complained about this, pointing to the fact that the cheque came in the husband’s name even though the ARMS bill is registered in the wife’s name. That a lot remains to be done when it comes to equality in the eyes of Government departments is glaringly obvious. Suffice to say that it was only this month that it was finally announced that tax rebates due to a married woman will come in her name, not her husband’s. Couples may now apply to the Inland Revenue Department to have separate accounts, and any rebates will be issued separately. To think it has taken this long for something so basic to happen is mind-boggling. If a couple have no qualms between them about money issues, it’s not a problem, but when there are differences on this matter, then receiving a cheque in your husband’s name can make you see red. As many have pointed out, it’s not the amount (which is laughable) but the principle of the thing.
Which brings me to the final point…I wrote that the amount is laughable, and in the grand scheme of things it is. In fact, it is almost an insult coming from an administration which has squandered so much money on White Elephants. But while the amount may be laughable to me, I also realise that I am writing from a rather privileged position where money is not tight. On the other hand, I can also remember times when finances were strained and perhaps a cheque like that might have been very welcome. For those who are struggling to keep their head above water, for those who cannot afford to splash out around €100 just to go out to dinner on a Saturday evening, and for those who have to count every cent, this cheque is not laughable.
The inequity of household incomes has been brought very much into the forefront with this cheque, proving once again how everything in life is relative. Some might blow the €35 on getting their nails done, for others it represents much-needed groceries. The Finance Minister might have meant well by doling out cheques to compensate for rising costs in basic commodities, but ironically he has only confirmed that we are not living in a fair, socially just, society. If we were, I doubt that the 153 helpline would have crashed due to the amount of people phoning in demanding to know where their cheque was.
Ultimately though, once the cheque has been spent, it will still not have solved the problem that the cost of basic groceries is becoming more expensive, especially for those on a low income.