VOORBURG, Netherlands (AP) — Cans of fish, jars of pasta sauce and bags of beans are stacked in blue crates. Meat, dairy and bread are kept cold in a huge freezer and a walk-in refrigerator in this affluent Dutch town. The supplies are on hand to feed the new poor in one of the richest nations in the world.
Needy families are lining up for free handouts at food banks across the Netherlands, underscoring how poverty is taking root even in lower middle-class families and why tackling it has become a major theme in next Wednesday’s parliamentary election.
If it gets any worse, “then it really becomes a scandal for society,” said Rob Kuipers, a 70-year-old retired senior civil servant who is the chairman of the local food bank in Leidschendam-Voorburg, within easy cycling distance of the parliament in The Hague.
The cost-of-living crisis, a chronic shortage of social and affordable housing and limits on access to affordable healthcare have combined to become known by the catch-all title “security of existence” in election campaigning and it’s a topic all parties are addressing in their election programs.
“We, for a long time, had people living in poverty but this was always, relatively speaking, a smaller group and a quite marginal group and now this has spread to the lower middle class. And that, I think, is the reason why we are talking so much about it now,” said Maurice Crul, a professor of sociology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
“This was always a topic that the progressive or the left-wing parties put on the agenda,” he added. “But now you see that also populist right wing parties and the middle party is putting this on the agenda big time, too.”
That centrist “middle party” is personified by Pieter Omtzigt, a former Christian Democrat who set up the New Social Contract over the summer. It is already polling so high that he will play a key role in coalition talks once the votes have been counted.
After years campaigning on behalf of marginalized members of society and uncovering government scandals, tackling poverty is one of his two main campaign themes.
“There is a long list of things we need to do to challenge that cost-of-living crisis,” he told reporters at a campaign event. “We will make the primary necessities of life affordable,” his party’s manifesto says, with measures including reforming taxation and welfare rules to give people more disposable income.
The center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, or VVD, of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte — traditionally seen as a party for the wealthy and a supporter of the free-market economy — is also pledging to help.
“To make sure people who work full-time can make ends meet, we will raise the minimum wage,” the party’s manifesto pledges. “To tackle childhood poverty, we will give targeted support to families with children.”
Underscoring how the issue cuts across traditional party lines, a center-left two-party bloc led by former European Union climate chief Frans Timmermans proposes some of the same solutions. It advocates raising the Dutch minimum wage to 16 euros ($17.40) per hour. For employees aged over 21 years, the current minimum is 12.79 euros for a 36-hour work week.
For some workers and for others living on welfare benefits, that is not enough.
The national umbrella organization for 176 Dutch food banks says that they serve a total of 38,000 households — 100,000 people — each week and that 1.2 million people live below the poverty line. The number is down slightly from a year ago when inflation was soaring in the Netherlands and across the world.
Just 18 months ago, the food bank in Leidschendam-Voorburg, a municipality of some 78,000 people that recently ranked fifth in a survey of the most “livable” towns in the the Netherlands, had 140 clients. That shot up to 250 as a cost-of-living crisis swept across the world and did not spare the wealthy Netherlands. Those 250 households amount to up to 700 people, Kuipers said.
The true number of people on the breadline may be much higher. The Leidschendam-Voorburg food bank Kuipers oversees estimates that the true number of people eligible for food aid could be two to three times higher.
Now he is waiting to see how the election plays out and the new constellation of parties joining forces to run the country.
Party programs “are full of beautiful words and relatively few precise actions,” he said.
He’s watching to see “how those beautiful words will be translated into concrete actions” after the election.