Social work – the most beautiful job in the world

Helmen Kütt

PHOTO: Liis Treimann / Postimees

Fresh social minister Helmen Kütt believes she can get a lot done during 11 months in office.

Helmen Kütt the new social minister says she might establish a private retirement or substitute home, having the opportunity. That would be a low ground-source-heated building with a courtyard and flowers.

Social ministry has gone the way of the funny TV series Riigimehed (Statesmen) with social cohesion ministry added to it. There, social ministry was split in a manner most simple: some departments to one minister, the rest to the other. In real life, did you divide the floors?

Luckily, me and Urmas Kruuse (the other social minister i.e. labour and health care minister – AA) sit facing one another. We have a local joke that as one comes to the ministers, on the right you’ll have Reform Party and on the left will be me, the leftwing social democrat. Exiting, the scene changes: I’ll be the right-winger, with Urmas Kruuse left on the left. Considering the other minister’s background – a mayor [of Tartu – edit] – I believe we’ll be having a good cooperation.

But how did the departments split up?

He has labour and health care. We haven’t yet had the problem of an official not knowing whose orders to obey. To many meetings we go together as we have interlocking topics. Like work capacity reform. To me belong pensions, the equality topic, child protection.

You immediately referred to employment reform – it was good to read it’s on the coalition treaty. If you will follow the current plan for the reform to begin in July 2015, then the law will need to be passed before Riigikogu elections.

This carries many troubles and risks. It must not be that the idea of the reform will be coloured by the fear that in reality life will rather get harder. The principle to assess capacity to work, as opposed to incapacity to work, is correct. Currently, there are precious few positions were these people can find employment. Right now, assessment of capacity to work is being tried out on 36 persons, but that’s too little. The reform must make people’s lives better and give them work. Services go with that. Therefore, I am not totally sure if July 1st 2015 is the right time to apply that. It still needs to be done, however – In European Union, those incapable of work make up 6.6 percent, with us it’s 12 percent and rising towards 15. Even so, we should not hurry with it.

Would it be better for you, politically, if there’d be no major changes before the elections?

Maybe I’m not a bona fide politician – I’d like to talk business. They say my term as minister is too short to change anything, but I do believe it is possible to start, and start right. Even in a day something can be done. If we want to start with the reform on July 1st 2015, the law should reach Riigikogu by end of this year.

May the reform be postponed then?

I would not hesitate to postpone it, should it need improvement. This is a decision for the labour minister, but we have agreed to discuss the issue together.

You are lucky to be a minister who, heading towards elections, may declare that the coalition treaty includes a basic promise which everybody knows ...

... you mean child allowances?

Exactly. In the coalition agreement there are all kinds of clauses to be discussed and analysed, but the child allowance promise means that before the elections, many people will get €45, instead of €19, per kid, onto their bank accounts.

This is so wonderful. When ten years ago €19.18 became the child allowance, the average pension was €143. Now, the average pension is €353. To say that we are now throwing money off an airplane isn’t right. It may be argued whether €45 is a lot or a little; clearly, however, child allowance size had lagged behind. We do have an excellent parental benefit, but with that there is the question is the lower and upper rates are right. When my daughter graduates from university, she’d be receiving that benefit according to the minimal rate, having not worked. I think the upper limit does postpone the birth of the first child somewhat. Children are not born because of money, but many young people think that let’s get employed after university and get a good salary, then the parental benefit would be larger.

Will the child allowance rise indeed help those kids that are in trouble and whose needs are greater? How to help children whose parents are not coping socially?

For families with children, subsistence benefit and need-based child allowance will rise. I consider it very important that state lunch support widens to gymnasium students.

All told, the sums are still too small!

I agree. Child allowance should rise for everybody, but what we need is services for least privileged families. Like kindergarten places for all who desire them.

That’s the big city problem; small local governments have no lack of kindergarten places.

In Viljandi, for instance the is such lack. As soon as a child is born, it gets placed in a kindergarten waiting list. I would very much like to have more services for least privileged families. In communes and smaller cities, the families with greater needs are known. If school lunch is free, why not have free food at kindergartens as well.

The allowance/benefit sum is large, but what reaches a definite family is small.

Since January, all families with children which are on subsistence benefit will also be receiving need-based child allowance, upon application and without additional certificates and expense receipts. Starting January 1st next year, need-based child allowance rises to €45. In my mind, we do not need to force people to prove that they are poor. We do indeed need documents, but is mustn’t be done in a way that it becomes a lifestyle. With sadness I have to say we have a generation grown up whose parents have been applicants for subsistence benefits and whose children follow the patterns set by parents. Poverty breeds poverty.

Do you think we have tens of thousands of hungry children, as they claim? 

The issue is: do all children get quality food, and according to their age? That, all are definitely not getting. The children really going hungry may be the case on school holidays. For that reason, Narva and other places in Estonia have the so-called summer kitchens. Do we have homeless children, one may ask.

We do not have children without homes, in that sense; but we do have kids with little parental care. The kid that has pocket money but only buys potato chips for isn’t going hungry; he just eats wrong. We have lots of children whose parents are working abroad. Good if grandparents are raising them; worse if it’s done a sister of brother who is a minor.

Who should notice these?

Here, local governments play a large role. According to studies, 43,000 kids live in relative poverty. If there’s work, there’s income. Pursuant to the new Child Protection Act, all will be obligated to report children who are in trouble. That’s not telling on people. Some people do notify even now, but once it is obligatory then I believe more will do so and local government will pay more attention.

One can’t just march into somebody else’s home and teach them how to live. People must agree for someone to intervene in his life.

If a family categorically refuses help, it is possible to help the child by offering a kindergarten place, free hobby education. That’s a complicated job. In Viljandi, we invited 20 families for counselling, at the Family Centre. Ten showed up. Jumping on people won’t help – that breeds spite. Who is she to tell me what to do, let ‘em better support me materially!

Cough up cash?

Yep... It’s always better to pay for a kid’s school outing or theatre. We have also directed kids’ money to grandparents if parents would rather order Yves Rocher cosmetics than pay for the children’s excursion. These are the exception, of course. Social work is the most beautiful work in the world, but it’s also a great art.

The coalition treaty makes no mention of the new Child Protection Act, even though it’s almost completed. Are you dealing with that or not?

From the ministry, Child Protection Act passes on to the government on June 1st. The question is when it enters into force – whether in 2015, or in 2016. Highly likely in 2016 as it requires much preparation. With the Child Protection Act, local government unions have objections that it infringes upon their decision-making. If obligations are given give money also. True, but what then would be more important? Pursuant to Local Government Administration Act, it is their primary job to stand for their people.

What kind of a social system do you think Estonia needs, for its people? While working in Viljandi, I looked to the Finnish model a lot. Why? We live in the same climate zone – we need to heat chimneys during the winter, considering the heating costs. However, we do have a major difference with Finland. If we, pursuant to Welfare Act, have children and grandchildren responsible to take care of their parents and grandparents, then in Finland that’s the responsibility of the state. The idea is: once I have done my duty towards the state and raised the kids, the state will guarantee my minimum, should I need a place in a retirement home. Not a private retirement home with more luxury.

Could that be so, In Estonia?

Our state is not yet able to take such responsibility; even so, I consider this principle to be right. Meanwhile local governments do try to consider this: if the children have their own children to raise, they will only be charged a symbolic fee for the retirement home, plus the elderly person’s pension of course. Very many elderly have made a gratuitous contract towards the local government i.e. granted their apartment of house and these are being used to pay for the retirement home.

Are there really many people like this?

While I was working as deputy mayor in Viljandi, we had six such cases. There are these also whose home has been passed down, from generation to generation and they want to keep it for children and grandchildren. As a rule, local governments take it case by case.

What else do you hope to get done in 11 months?

During that time, we will be able to develop the kindergarten programme principles, to create kindergarten places for EU money – that’s in the coalition agreement. What’s also vital, not in the coalition agreement though, is for there to be clarity how rest is provided to those caring for people close to them, for there to be trained support persons available. That cannot remain a task for local government alone. This must not be a political topic, rather a social political one. I don’t want any party to grab it as their «thing» to flaunt; rather, that all parties would be jointly involved.

As a citizen, that’s how I’d like society to be governed...

Me too. As I came to Riigikogu, three years ago, I was more naive. Thinking that things can be done faster if everybody sees these are the right things. I did not think everything is strictly according to coalition agreement. Proposals that came from others, even if they didn’t need much money, were set aside. I’ve been thinking that if, in 11 months, it will be evident that nothing can actually be done, then I’m going back to the simplest of social work, where I enjoyed working every day. I enjoyed that work – sounds terrible as others come with their troubles, but I enjoyed being able to do something.

By what trick could we get people back from Finland? Ten-fold child allowance we cannot pay.

Not by such monetary measures. Anu Raud is a precious one, whose ideas I admire. Like her, I think that one day Estonia will be esteemed for its clean air and living environment.

Maybe when Estonia has kindergartens for all children and good schools and the feeble ones will find safety and care, if needed. Not much else needed?

A job also, and then it is well.

A job can be created?

Not all are employers. I have been thinking that I would not be a good entrepreneur, rather a good paid labourer. If I’d be really rich or my husband would be really rich, I’d set up a private retirement home. I would know the dignified way to get old, how to keep a retirement home.  

Do you know of a retirement home in Estonia, the kind you’d set up?

There are several where I’d take something, from each one. I would not use an old house; I’d build a new, low and ground-heated; with a courtyard and flowers. But I’d have to be swimming in money to do that. Who knows, maybe somebody will want to do that one day, I’d offer myself as director. Another thing I might do – me and my husband, we might have a good substitute home. Our own kids are already out on their own, we have enough space, a garden. I believe many a child would find a good substitute home, with us.