In Europe, we pride ourselves on our solidarity. We are a continent with a long history of strong social protection, accessible healthcare and free education. And yet these principles often take a back seat when it comes to persons with disabilities. Two decades into the 21st century, being a person with a disability in the European Union is still synonymous with an increased risk of poverty. This has been made far worse by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
As part of its proposed Action Plan on the EU Pillar of Social Rights, the European Commission is looking into the possibility of coordinated EU action on either minimum wage or minimum income. Minimum wage refers to the minimum amount of remuneration that an employer is required to pay an employee in relation to the work they do. Minimum income, on the other hand, refers to the minimum amount of money a person should be receiving to live, regardless of whether or not this comes from paid work or from social protection schemes. This EU-level action is already in the planning stages.
However, any EU measures establishing common standard on minimum wage and income need to make a very clear distinction between what is adequate for persons without a disability, and what it means to be adequate for persons with disabilities.
Numerous studies have shown that the cost of living for persons with disabilities, just to make ends meet, is far higher than for persons without disabilities (See page 23 of EDF 4th Human Rights Report (pdf)). The additional costs of living in an inaccessible society is one of the reasons why an estimated 30 million persons with disabilities live in poverty in the EU. In fact, Eurostat figures suggest that persons with disabilities are around 10 percentage points more likely to be poor than persons without disabilities (EU SILC, 2018).
All too often, persons with disabilities have to pay out of their own pocket to make up for a society that remains inaccessible to them. Paying for adapted medical treatment, technical aids, accessible transport and mobility, accessible housing, personal assistance and sign language interpreters are just some of the reasons so many persons with disabilities are at real risk of not having enough to get by. Studies from all over Europe attest that, even with support in the form of disability payments, it is rarely enough to cover the person’s outgoings (See page 23 of EDF 4th Human Rights Report (pdf)).
EU figures also show that persons with disabilities who are employed are more likely than persons without disabilities to face in-work poverty. In the EU 11% of persons with disabilities in employment are still living below the poverty line (EU SILC, 2018). Managing to get by on a typical work salary while covering so many disability-related costs is simply not feasible for many.
Any EU action on minimum salary or adequate income must avoid taking a one-size-fits all approach by promoting a Reference Budget type model. Any action must recognise that to lead a secure and dignified life as a person with a disability will require adapted minimum income thresholds.
It must recognise that disability entitlements in the form of cash payments or tax reductions are a necessary means of compensating for the extra barriers and costs faced by persons with disabilities. They should therefore be entirely compatible with other forms of income such as paid work or inheritance. Persons with disabilities should be entitled to improve their economic situation through employment and inheritance in the same way as anyone else, without losing entitlements foreseen specifically to support with disability-related costs. These disability entitlements should also be reviewed in line with the cost of living of different Member States and regions to ensure that they adequately off-set the extra cost of living for persons with disability, and sufficiently protect us from falling into poverty.
It is also necessary to ensure that persons with disabilities who exercise their right to freedom of movement continue receiving disability entitlements, either from their home Member State, their new Member State of residence, or a mixture of both. This will also require mutual recognition of disability assessment between Member States.
What will be deemed adequate income for a person without a disability will almost certainly fall far short of what is needed to prevent a person with a disability from falling below the poverty threshold. In its action on minimum wage and minimum income, we need the Commission to clearly acknowledge the unique situation faced by most persons with disabilities. Anything that overlooks this will fail in its attempt to reduce poverty levels among those most at risk. This is an opportunity for real change and one we cannot afford to miss.