A report by the EU Commission clearly shows that often people at risk of poverty or social exclusion do not have access to essential services. These include water and energy supplies, transport services and digital means of communication. Without secure access to these basic services, the digital and green transition ("twin transition") cannot be managed in a socially just manner.
Essential services are the services that all EU citizens depend on. They are an essential part of the foundational economy and often a prerequisite for accessing other public services such as childcare, education and healthcare. According to Principle 20 of the European Pillar of Social Rights, each person in the European Union has the right to access these services:
“Everyone has the right to easy-to-use and affordable key services, including water, sanitation, energy, transport, financial services and digital communications. Those in need of assistance are given support to access these services.“
The European Pillar of Social Rights is a guideline for Europe and serves to strengthen social rights and their enforcement in the EU. A recent report by the European Commission shows that people at risk of poverty or social exclusion often had no access to essential services in 2022.
Household survey data show the consequences of the cost of living crisis
The data on which the report is based comes from EU-SILC, an annual Eurostat survey on income, poverty and living conditions in Europe. In Austria, Statistics Austria carries out the representative survey of households. According to the EU definition, individuals are at risk of poverty if they have less than 60 percent of the median net household income at their disposal. People are considered to be at risk of poverty or exclusion if they are either at risk of poverty, are significantly materially and socially disadvantaged or utilise less than 20 percent of their earning potential.
The current results of the survey are significant in that they already show part of the effect of the inflation and energy crisis on households. 2022 was financially difficult due to high prices. Low-income households are disproportionately affected by the price increases, as they spend a higher proportion of their income on basic necessities and because these are subject to particularly high inflation rates. For example, according to the Commission's report, 15.6 percent of people at risk of poverty and exclusion were in arrears with payments across the EU in 2022.
Last year, high energy prices meant that 9.3 percent of Europeans had problems keeping their homes adequately warm. This figure is significantly higher for people at risk of poverty or marginalisation: one in five people across the EU. But the problem of energy poverty is not only found at the lower end of the income scale. Figures from 2021 show that half of the people who were unable to heat their home adequately belong to the middle income group.
However, regarding access to clean water and sanitary facilities (bathroom and toilet), the study shows a strong correlation with income poverty. Across the EU, 1.5 percent of people lack access to sanitary facilities, rising to over 5 percent for those living in poverty, although in some Member States, such as Romania, these figures are significantly higher. Furthermore, around 2 percent of people in the EU cannot afford to pay for an internet connection. For those at risk of poverty and exclusion, the rate is 7.6 percent. Energy poverty is a problem in Austria too: 7 percent of people at risk of poverty or exclusion cannot afford to keep their home sufficiently warm.
Urgent need for action for a socially just “twin transition”
The report identifies affordability, a lack of skills and inadequate infrastructure as structural reasons for barriers to access. In the area of digital communication, a lack of digital skills is the decisive factor. Furthermore, the place of residence is decisive for access to mobility and digital means of communication. In rural areas, broadband connections are poorer and the transport infrastructure is less well developed.
To counteract the problems identified, the report highlights successful national and European measures. For example, minimum income schemes in some EU countries help to ensure that people have sufficient financial resources to access essential services. At European level, for example, the Social Climate Fund is going to be a measure to protect disadvantaged households from energy poverty. However, a recent study by the Chamber of Labour shows that Austria has neither a comprehensive policy framework that goes beyond this to ensure access to public services nor any empirical evidence of the affordability of essential services.
Fiscal room for manoeuvre is a prerequisite for the Member States to be able to offer affordable, high-quality public services across the board. This must be taken into account as a matter of urgency when discussing the new economic governance. Austerity policies not only lead to money being saved for specific measures; cuts in social benefits particularly affect the most vulnerable groups. Unfortunately, there is still no European Directive that lays down binding minimum standards, definitions and basic principles for the organisation of minimum income schemes in the Member States.
EU Commission: Access to essential services: key challenged for the most vulnerable – report
Database Overview: EU-SILC
AK EUROPA: European Commission initiative on a Council Recommendation on adequate minimum income schemes
AK EUROPA: A long-term Vision for the EU’s Rural Areas
AK EUROPA: Promoting investment in the future and social balance? New proposal for EU fiscal rules unconvincing
AK Study: Study on access to essential services: The case of Austria
EU Council: Fit for 55: a fund to support the most affected citizens and businesses
EU-SILC Tables: Results for Austria 2022 (German only)
AK EUROPA: Minimum income must be adequate and inclusive