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Originally published Monday, August 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Poverty on the rise in the Netherlands

Marielle de Vries, a single mother of six, doesn't have much choice about what to feed her family for dinner. These days, it's likely to...

The Associated Press

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands — Marielle de Vries, a single mother of six, doesn't have much choice about what to feed her family for dinner.

These days, it's likely to be cold sandwiches — the two bags of groceries she picked up last week from a program for the poor contained a loaf of white bread, cold cuts, nuts, tomatoes and a pineapple.

"It's bad in Africa, but people are going hungry here too. It's just that no one sees it," de Vries, 36, said after lugging her provisions out of the God's Pasture church building.

Soup kitchens and bread lines seem out of place in this affluent country long known for its generous welfare system, administered until recently by generations of socialist-leaning governments.

But the growing dependency on private charity by thousands of people reflects how Holland — long admired for its fast-paced growth, high employment and prosperity — is falling on hard times.

After years of strong growth, the economy has ground to a near standstill, and since April 2004 the number of people receiving free food packages at the Dutch Food Bank has jumped from 600 per week to nearly 5,000. Thousands more go without.

Most are unemployed, like de Vries. But many were declared physically unfit to work because of disabilities or earn minimum wages that run out before the end of the month.

The conservative government has been trying to control welfare costs by limiting the number of recipients. Health-care costs are expected to balloon in coming years due to an aging population.

"It's a serious problem," said Henk Faling, acting head of the Food Bank. "A lot of people might not think so, but help is needed in the Netherlands. Poverty is just around the corner."

The most recent preliminary figures from the government's Bureau for Social and Cultural Planning indicate that at least 11 percent of the Dutch population, or between 700,000 and 800,000 households, lived in poverty in 2004, after the figure had declined steadily in the late 1990s to a low of 10.1 percent in 2000.

The poverty threshold in the Netherlands is annual income of less than $12,770 for a single adult and $23,930 for a family with two children.

The Netherlands' economy showed the worst performance in the 25-country European Union in the first quarter of 2005, contracting 0.5 percent. Dutch unemployment has risen to nearly 7 percent from just under 2 percent in the late 1990s.

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It's all a sign of economic troubles in a country that is shifting from a traditionally strong social-welfare system toward a more free-market approach, with rising health-insurance premiums and housing costs. Premiums for health insurance have risen more than 50 percent on average in the past three years, and are expected to rise an additional 10 percent in 2006. Those trends, combined with government cuts in social spending, have led experts to predict poverty will worsen in coming years.

Those most at risk are pensioners, the elderly, single parents and non-native households, particularly Moroccan.

Immigrant families account for 33 percent of the country's poor although they make up less than a fifth of the population, according to SCP figures.

Demand for assistance from the Dutch Food Bank is growing so quickly that the organization can't keep up.

The Food Bank distributes about $5 million in donated food annually. It gives a weekly package worth about $24 in bread, vegetables and other groceries to families with less than $490 in disposable income a month, based on a two-child household. Those eligible can receive assistance for a maximum of three years.

De Vries has depended on the Food Bank for survival for more than two years. After she and her former husband spent years fruitlessly job hunting, their marriage broke apart over financial worries.

She lost her job as a supermarket cashier, and government job-placement programs have been unable to help her find a new one. "I know what hunger feels like, but the worst part is the guilt," she said. "I can't even afford to buy my children an ice cream."

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