Half of Tunis Families Can’t Afford a Dignified Life, Study Finds

Sidi Bahri market in Tunis on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek.

At least 40 percent “and more likely half” of families living in the capital Tunis don’t have the “necessary resources to access the conditions for dignified lives,” a new study finds.

The study, entitled “A Dignity Budget for Tunisia,” found that a family of four needs to spend 2420 dinars a month; however, the majority of families in the greater Tunis area spend less than this minimum amount each month, according to the study. Another set of statistics looking at the incomes of people in the entire country (not just in the capital Tunis) is even starker: according to a report from October 2020, 84 percent of Tunisian households make less than 1500 dinars per month, and only four percent have an average monthly income greater than 2500 dinars. The legally mandated minimum wage (SMIG) for a 40-hour work week, as of October 2020, is 366 dinars per month.

But even this “Dignity Budget” of 2420 dinars per month for a family is no longer enough, one of the study participants told Meshkal, noting that the study was done in 2019 before the price of goods increased even further.

The study was conducted  “when Tunisia was still expensive, but it became even more so now,” Loubna Moumni, a civil society activist and a volunteer at a youth center who participated in the study told Meshkal.

“2500 [dinars per month] is no longer enough, especially if they have a rented house. Things have changed a lot. If you see one kilo of peppers for four dinars, and a kilo of tomatoes for three, to make a salad, for poor people – I’m not talking about meat.” Moumni said.

The study, conducted by International Alert’s Tunisia office, the French State-affiliated Economic and Social Research Institute (IRES), and the German State-funded Friedrich Ebert Foundation, convened nearly 83 participants from working class neighborhoods Douar Hicher and Hay Ettadhamen in several small groups to discuss, debate and negotiate what they believed is a necessary budget for a family of four living in Tunis.

Olfa Lamloum, the Tunisia country director of International Alert, told Meshkal (full interview available here) that the Dignity Budget study aimed to center ordinary people in discussion about their own needs.

“What we try to say is there is no legitimacy—institutional or bureaucratic etc.—to decide our needs. People, citizens, women, men and, in general, citizen expertise is able—and has enough legitimacy—to decide and discuss…to deliberate on their needs and their minimum needs and it’s a democratic way,” Lamloum told Meshkal.

A Minimum Income Allows “Acceptable” Inequality

While the main author of the study, Pierre Concialdi, told Meshkal that they had considered calling their findings a “minimum” budget, they instead opted for the term “dignity” budget.

“It seems that the term ‘minimum’ was perhaps too strong in the sense that it could have led people to think about some kind of survival or something like that,” Concialdi told Meshkal by phone, noting that the term ‘dignity’ “could perhaps capture the intention behind the project” because the term “appeared to be very present in the revolutionary movement; also it is included in the [Tunisian] constitution.”

The study used a methodology that focuses on asking ordinary people to reach a consensus around daily, monthly, and yearly spending for a family, from transportation to food to hygiene to vacations and all the various other costs associated with what the participants see as a dignified life. Participants were asked to prioritize and order their spending to determine which goods and services were more necessary than others.

In 2017, the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), a guaranteed minimum salary to everyone, was a hotly discussed topic in the United States. In 2020, businessman and presidential hopeful for the Democrat party, Andrew Yang, was a proponent of a $1000 per month UBI. Supporters of UBI also included Silicon Valley billionaires, raising concerns among critics who see UBI as setting an absolute minimum to forestall discussion about setting maximum levels for the very wealthy and enacting more substantive social redistribution, or as making inequality worse by subsidizing employers.

Meshkal asked lead author of “A Dignity Budget for Tunisia” Concialdi if the methodology they employed for the study, “Minimum Income Standard,” developed in the United Kingdom in 2006, might be used similarly to a UBI in setting an absolute minimum without addressing broader social inequality.

“I think the main virtue of this reference budget is…we need some minimum equality at least and inequality can only be acceptable if we reach this minimum level of equality for all, and that is exactly what Plato says in The Laws,” Concialdi told Meshkal, referring to Plato’s final book. “You can only think about some kind of reasonable, acceptable inequality if, at the very same time, you consider the minimum equality for all, some shared minimum, so to say, for all the people.”

Concialdi said that while some people take the proposal of minimum incomes as implying the need for setting maximum incomes: “I clearly do not share this view.”

Nevertheless, some of the “Dignity Budget” study’s participants do see taxing those with higher incomes as a viable solution to the problem of inadequate income among many.

“There is no tax justice. If Tunisia achieved tax justice, I think all citizens would live in the same way,” study participant Mohamed Ali Mnasria told Meshkal.

Mnasria’s complaint with inequality in the tax system is one that has been well-publicized in recent years. Salaried workers have their taxes deducted from their paychecks in advance; in contrast, workers in what are referred to as “liberal” professions—namely lawyers and doctors who run their own offices—must declare their own taxes through self-reporting of income, which inevitably leads to some level of underreported income and lower tax rates.

“They make ten times more money than me, but in taxes I pay more than them,” said Mnasria, who works at a school in Douar Hicher and volunteers his time with a youth association. “There’s first class citizens and second class citizens.”

While the study looked at family income, it did not examine family wealth or explicit questions about social class.

Democracy, but not in the Economy

An inadequate family income among many Tunisians is something the participants of the “Dignity Budget” study said they feel viscerally.

“My husband works two shifts and it doesn’t provide. He works from 10 at night until 10 in the morning, he returns home, he eats and sleeps an hour then he gets up and goes again to another job,” Moumni told Meshkal. “That’s why I entered the volunteering space so my brain doesn’t get fried, so I don’t think. Life is difficult in Tunisia.”

Moumni said that since the 2011 revolution brought new freedoms, she has been able to play an active role in civil society and volunteer—most recently helping distribute Covid-19 supplies. But these new freedoms haven’t meant much when it comes to her standard of living.

“At the end of the day, when you get to the economy, there isn’t democracy anymore. They think of everything except a citizen living a dignified life—they don’t think about that,” Moumni said. “Why did we get rid of Ben Ali? So we could live with dignity. Now we’ve reached a point [where we have] even less than [we had] during Ben Ali’s time.”

Mnasria echoed these sentiments, calling Tunisia’s democracy “nominal [souria].”

“You can vote on everything except if it relates to the budget. We voted on everything except things related to money,” Mnasria said.

Mnasria sees this lack of a democracy in economic affairs as a holdover from the old regime keeping control.

“You see this transitional democratic stage we’re in? We still haven’t arrived there because there’s a faction from the old regime that refuses a citizen getting involved in its interests, which it considers its own,” Mnasria said.

Policy Solutions to Inadequate Income

For Mnasria, the basic solution to inadequate income is simple: either raise salaries or lower prices.

“Either a lowering of prices for basic materials, the costs of expenditures, or an increase in salaries. There’s no other solution. That means that either the State gets involved to lower [the prices] of at least the basic materials a lot, or raise salaries,” Mnasria said.

While the minimum monthly wage is 366 dinars per month, Mnasria said this needs to be increased to at least 1000 dinars, given that the “Dignity Budget” found a family of four living in Tunis needs more than 2400 per month.

Some of the family spending in the “Dignity Budget” included some allowances for spending on private sector services such as in health because “public services appear too degraded.” However, the study noted that participants said they would prefer to use public services if they were in better quality and had enough resources to meet their needs effectively and in a timely manner.

Mnasria said he thinks Tunisia has adequate resources to address the income and spending issues brought up in the study, but that these resources have not been directed properly.

“Where’s [the money going]? That’s the problem. If we find where the money is going, that’s when we can find a solution,” Mnasria told Meshkal.

As for politicians, Moumni does not trust that they are willing to address everyday concerns of people struggling with costs of living.

“Politicians are busy with political wrestling…they’re busy with internal struggles and forgot the people,” she said.

Nevertheless, Mnasria said he does think authorities need to act on the study they produced.

“The report is great if authorities act on it…If it remains just a report then it’s like we didn’t do anything,” he told Meshkal.