He’s late, but like any good Swede, he has phoned ahead to tell me this. He had to go by bus to the place we were supposed to meet, and he’d had a scare that there were ticket controllers on that bus. He had skipped it and took the next bus.
For Mikael, even a bus ticket is a luxury . The seventy-two crowns he’d have to pay for a two-way ticket to move from his home in a suburb to the Gothenburg city center is one or two day’s food. He can only go anywhere if he sneaks onto the bus and the tram, and then avoid being caught by ticket inspectors. If he’s caught, the fines as swinging. When I suggest that I should come to him, he refuses. He doesn’t want to talk to me “at home”. People know him there, and they’ll wonder who I am. He’ll come to me.
For a decade, the authorities have neglected to increase the subsistence benefit to the poorest people in Sweden. Mikael has to live on around €300 euros per month, give or take a few euros depending on which municipality one lives in. In addition, councils are supposed to help with rents and other necessary costs like power and dental care and essential eye-wear. However, the councils put large barriers before the applicants for this benefit of last resort.
We’re meeting in a café at a shopping mall. When I passed into the mall, there was the usual sight outside the turning doors. A beggar sat with a cup outstretched as Swedes moved past her without seeing her. She didn’t say anything as I pass her, just held out the cup. She was still there when I left. Begging is a patient game, as ever. There’s now a debate in Sweden that beggars should be banned – not that the causes of begging should be addressed.
Inside the mall, the café was functional. Lots of people visited it, and we found a table on the second floor. There weren’t as many people there, and Mikael kept looking around as if his best friends were just around the corner. He spoke in a low voice, bent over the table toward me as if admitting a crime or a terrible vice.
“I have to pay €400 in a week’s time, and I don’t know how to do it. The council wants a rental contract before they give me that, and I can’t get one. I can document everything, to show I’m not lying to them. Bank transfers, dates, everything. They know where I live, and with who. They still want the rental contract, and if I ask for it, I’ll be homeless. They don’t care. I think they’re looking for a reason to deny me help. That’s their job, isn’t it?” His tone is insistant, outraged, as if to defend himself from an accusation of lies.
When asked about why he can’t get a rental contract – it seems an easy thing – he explains that his landlord is awful. “If I could, I’d find somewhere else, but I can’t.” Gothenburg has an extreme housing crisis with long queues even for people with good economies. The official housing queue for a flat is three to five years.
For people like Mikael, they have to submit to live-in arrangements, second or third-hand rentals. The potential for abuse is very large. It is a landlord’s market, and tenants will suffer much to have a roof over their heads.
“First, he’s a drunk,” Mikael goes on, still talking about his landlord. “Every day when I come home he sits there on the sofa half off his arse. He’s not violent, though so I can tolerate it. But he hates soc-clients,” Mikael says. Meaning people like himself who rely on the social affairs departments of the councils. “Immigrants, soc-clients, and foreigners are awful, according to him. If I said I got my money from soc, he’d kick me out. I’ve explained this to them, but they still want a contract”.
The recipients of council subsistence help do have to jump through large hoops to qualify. Mikael shows a list of everything he has to do and document to get his help. It’s a long list, and halfway in it is the requirement for the “live-in contract”. He shows me screenshots of his bank account and the transfers to his landlord. I use the same bank, so there’s nothing changed in the screenshots.
The law is clear that people like Mikael should be treated with respect to the individual, and that the relationship should be done in a way to help the individual help himself. Earlier, the same scare grew in Sweden as in other countries that subsistence benefit claimants were cheating and gaming the system.
When large numbers of immigrants who hadn’t grafted into the national benefit systems arrived, municipal benefits like this were even more discredited. Stories about how single mothers with large families lived like royalty abounded and people like Mikael got stuck in a hamster wheel of bureaucracy just to exist. A crack-down happened, and these “soc-clients” were put in place at the bottom of the priorities list. Even with inflation, the amount they receive hasn’t changed for years.
There are many political covers for people to take a hard-line stance against this group. Certainly, raising the amount received each month from €300 would mean political opposition, and the debate of “money for nothing” would be rekindled. Mikael has no hope that things will change. “Sometimes I think the best would be for me to just go into the river,” meaning Gothia River that runs through Gothenburg. “It would solve many things, wouldn’t it?”
I suggest it wouldn’t, but the conversation is depressing. This is one of the richest countries in the world, with an economy that can cope with a massive increase in public spending for middle-class families, working moms and dads, pensioners, and students. But people like Mikael, they’ll never get anything. Like beggars outside supermarkets, the conceited Swede would rather not hear from him at all.
Mikael has said his piece, and we’re drifting into other subjects. He’s had a stranger’s ear for a while and will get back to worry about his life shortly, but until then I can at least buy him a coffee and a cinnamon bun. And talk about football and films.
Back home, I rage at the injustice. This is one of the richest countries in the world, with an economy that can cope with a massive increase in public spending for middle-class families, working moms and dads, pensioners and students. But people like Mikael, they’ll never get anything.
Like beggars outside supermarkets, the conceited Swede would rather not hear from him at all. Their moral condemnation ring in my ears. “People have to make right for themselves,” meaning the social commandment to not be reliant on others. In British terms, it would be a war headline in the Daily Mail about scroungers and benefit cheats, pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. “Socialist Sweden” sometimes seems awfully like the Daily Mail comment section.
NOTE: No, Mikael is not this guy’s real name.