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Poverty is not just a question of money

Jan 22, 2024 | News

Social innovation unique in Central Europe alive in Miskolc: an interview with the Deputy Mayor 

No municipality in Hungary goes untouched by poverty. In 2021, the leadership of Miskolc chose to face the problems affecting the city via a social innovation plan based on the idea of “Miskolc shall be a place for everyone” an EU-financed project the city is currently implementing. Andrea Varga, Deputy Mayor of Miskolc, responsible for human services, on the special urban development effort, is featured in the below interview. 

There are a number of development and social initiatives underway in numerous municipalities across Hungary. What is special or promising about the project you have started in Miskolc and what has the European Union seen in it as innovative? 

If we want to have a livable and prosperous city, we have to do something about poverty. The 4IM project is a comprehensive and complex: it addresses old problems using new methods with a strong focus on developing new institutional capabilities. It does not follow a top-down “what to do” approach, but, in cooperation with those living on the periphery, it defines new directions for the development of social and employment services, and for linking and building on them, which we then plan to extend to the entire population of the city. 

The 4IM project in Miskolc is one of the 69 pilot initiatives launched under the European Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI) programme as part of the European Social Fund. Nine of these received funding, of which Miskolc is the only municipality of Central Europe to be granted a project. Miskolc has thus become a member of a club where operational experience will be incorporated into the European Union’s policy guidelines and decisions. In other words, we are tasked with building an effective support system that promotes European-level objectives and can be used locally.

We will come to the old problems and new methods later, but first let us be clear: what is the significance of the project?

At stake is whether or not we have modern public services that live up to the reality of the city and are able to shape it. As a leader of the municipality, my job, together with the experts in the social and employment field, is to think systemically, just like managers of companies that settle here and offer jobs to Miskolc residents. We need to create public and social services that are responsive to the needs of the people; services that can help more of them become independent and autonomous citizens and active participants in the labour market.

Is it not what existing public social services have already been doing? 

We have the same legal framework, public service methods, and institutional capacity that we had 20-30 years ago, while the world has changed and is still changing. You only have to think of how the coronavirus epidemic changed our lives and how its effects linger on, but there are also the old problems that our existing service systems could not solve, or could not do much about. Life changes, needs and challenges change, regulations and institutional frameworks need to be constantly reviewed and updated. 

Let us start with the old problems. 

The 2010 census of the Hungarian Central Statistical Office identified 33 below-average, catching-up neighbourhoods in Miskolc with a total population of around 5-6 thousand people. Based on the field work of the city’s social policy and social services professionals, we know that, remarkably, the number of these neighbourhoods has now fallen to 16. A big problem however is that their population has almost doubled, with around 10,000 people now living in these neighbourhoods. We therefore need to find professional and institutional ways to help marginalised people contribute to poverty reduction.

How can this problem be tackled? 

We need to see that marginalised and underprivileged communities with complex problems receive via development professionals’ tailored methodologies social and employment services, innovations and interdependent solutions. These groups have fundamentally different experiences of living together, different norms that govern life, and a different sense of community participation in the municipality in which they live as compared to the majority of Miskolc’s residents.

What steps have you taken so far in the project and what have you achieved? 

First, in 2019-20, we started a review of our social policy system to see how well it can respond to the challenges of 2021-22-23. Then we started field work to see the reality on the ground and assess the depth and breadth of the problems. For example, we made use of the community coaching toolbox, a methodology that is still new in Hungary.

Is this a new profession? What does the community coach do in Miskolc? 

A community coach is a sort of guide who supports communities and organisations by first identifying and then assisting them in achieving their goals. They are a promoter of self-organisation and reorganisation of the local community. They support and mentor interested parties, and in particular those who want to play an active role. Community coaching is a development tool that encourages community members to act together according to their interests and to unleash the potential of individuals and the community to help them break out of extreme poverty. In the 4IM project, community coaches started their work in two of the 16 impoverished neighbourhoods: Tetemvár and Bábonyibérc. The aim of cooperating with them is to learn about local needs and, through dialogue, to learn more about the everyday lives of the people who live there, so as to develop a methodology adapted to their needs whereby social services may be better accessed.

What is the objective of the 4IM project? 

It is an institutional development project, through which we can develop new service pathways that can support the people of Miskolc living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. The goal is to improve their situation and better integrate them into the Miskolc community, including into the world of employment. In Miskolc, we are in uniquely difficult situation that we have a shortage of jobs and a shortage of labour. As Deputy Mayor, I believe that with an appropriate social and employment support system adapted to our social reality, the gap can be closed and companies coming to us will find more able and available labour.

Will there be other innovations in the project? 

We are also exploring the possibility of introducing a minimum income scheme. Contrary to popular belief, poverty is not just about not having money, and money is not the only way out of poverty. Minimum income is a non-cash benefit, with the main function of ensuring access to adequate and basic public services, such as health care, childcare, energy, transport and digital communication services, for those who lack sufficient resources. Its function is to make up for what is lacking so that the persons concerned may live a life of dignity. Minimum income is not the same as unconditional basic income, as it is not unconditional. In addition to personalisation, an important part of the minimum income scheme is the cooperation of the person concerned with the designated social and employment services worker. No cooperation, no support. The social benefits are that professionals can learn more about the individuals concerned and identify additional circumstances, such as physical illness or mental blocks, that may have hindered the individual’s ability to work or enter the labour market and, through cooperation, may provide further personalised support to help them to enter the labour market.

How long is the project and what results have you achieved so far? 

The project will run for 30 months between November 2021 and June 2024. It is different from any previous programme in that we are helping people in the two selected neighbourhoods understand that they can do something to improve their conditions and that nothing will change without their participation. So, we cooperated with them to set goals and implement small but important tasks together. One such project was the renovation of the staircase in Bábonyiérc. Locals reported that the shoes of children going to school and of adults going to work became muddy in rainy weather, which often led to conflicts and reinforced stereotypical attitudes towards them. Together with them, we renovated the staircase. With such small steps, we can improve human dignity and reduce everyday tensions.. There was also a community streambed clean-up undertaken by the people from nearby neighbourhoods: they joined forces when they realised that they had similar problems and that it was worth working together to do something about them. There have also been children’s meetings with local schoolchildren, which have led to games, theatre visits, gardening activities, and foreign language learning.

What will be done with the lessons learned and experience gained from the project?

We are constantly collecting and evaluating lessons learned. The Social Innovation Council was set up by the Mayor to make concrete proposals to the municipality on what social policy changes are needed. The project also has a geographically more distant impact. With a very similar social and economic present and recent past to Miskolc, the twin city of Košice also plans to use our experience to address its own challenges. We have also given signals to the government on what legislative changes we think are needed at national level.