Poverty is key theme in Netherlands vote

Parties address ‘security of existence’

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, talks with the Associated Press, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Mike Corder)

VOORBURG, Netherlands -- 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 Wednesday's parliamentary election.

The cost-of-living crisis, a chronic shortage of social and affordable housing and limits on access to affordable health care have combined to become known by the catch-all title "security of existence" in election campaigning, and it is a topic all parties are addressing in their election programs.

The centrist "middle party" is personified by Pieter Omtzigt, a former Christian Democrat who set up the New Social Contract party 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 $17.40 per hour. For employees aged over 21 years, the current minimum is $13.97 for a 36-hour work week.

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.

The true number of people on the breadline may be much higher. The Leidschendam-Voorburg food bank estimates that the true number of people eligible for food aid could be two to three times higher.

  photo  FILE - Pieter Omtzigt, leader of the recently formed Dutch political party New Social Contract, speaks to the media at a meeting in Amersfoort, Netherlands on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)
  photo  FILE - Dilan Yesilgoz, leader of the center-right Liberal Party talks to voters during an election campaign in Hilversum, Netherlands, on Nov. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)
  photo  Frans Timmermans, leader of the center-left bloc of Labor and Green Left, talks during an interview when attending a gathering of tens of thousands of people who marched through Amsterdam, Netherlands, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023, to call for more action to tackle climate change. The march came 10 days before national elections in the Netherlands. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)