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Cost of living: A Dutch woman plans to forego heating come winter | Inflation

This story is part of a series of portraits exploring how the cost-of-living crisis is affecting people around the world.

Tilburg, Netherlands – Hanny Heuvelink fears the moment the mail arrives. Any day now, the post could deliver the final bill for the past year’s gas and electricity and she worries about the amount she will have to pay.

When you are on welfare like Heuvelink and have only about $40 a week for daily expenses, a sudden hike in your gas and electricity bill can prove to be a fatal blow to the budget. Not that Heuvelink is one to complain. “Niet mauwen, maar kauwen [don’t dwell on your sorrows]” is the motto of the cheerful 57-year-old.

Balancing a tiny budget has been Heuvelink’s speciality for decades, but the price hikes of the past months caught her unaware. Inflation in the Netherlands has hovered at about 10 percent since the beginning of the year, making grocery shopping a challenge.

The bag of bread rolls she always buys – “more filling than sliced bread” – that cost $1.25 last year now sells for $1.75, she says. These days, Heuvelink goes to four different supermarkets to find the cheapest products. It is a time-consuming exercise but she says she has no other choice.

Due to rising living costs, she already plans to not switch on the heating later this year, in fact – she has not since 2018 – and instead will spend the cold months under a blanket on the couch, not inviting anyone in.

Heuvelink’s is one of the 550,000 households in the Netherlands that, according to the independent Netherlands Organisation of Applied Scientific Research (TNO) lives in “energy poverty”, meaning that they spend more than 7 percent of their already low income on electricity and gas. That is one in 15 households in the European country that ranks fourth on financial and insurance company Allianz’s list of nations with the richest citizens. And these statistics date from 2021, before gas prices quintupled.

That is exactly what worries Heuvelink, she says as she gets up from the slightly worn, sky blue dining table chair. It is a sunny day in July in Tilburg, a city in the southern province of North Brabant. Pots of hardy long-leafed snake plants brighten up the corners of the narrow living room of the row house she rents from the local social housing corporation. The open French doors to her little garden letting in the warm summer air will remain firmly shut come winter.

Heuvelink, who is on social welfare, fears the arrival of the energy bill and these days visits several supermarkets to find the cheapest staples [Femke van Zeijl/Al Jazeera]

Balancing a tiny budget

Like most Dutch consumers, Heuvelink has a long-term contract with a gas and electricity company with a fixed price per cubic metre of gas. An estimated bill comes every month, and after a year the meter is checked to see if the actual usage exceeded the estimate. If it has, she will have to pay the difference. This is the moment Heuvelink is dreading. But to make matters worse, her long-term contract has come to an end, and she will have to renegotiate terms with the gas company.

At the moment, Heuvelink’s monthly bill is $150, which constitutes an already hefty 15 percent of her monthly social assistance of about $1,000. She fears the amount with a new contract might be twice as high. “Who knows how much I have to pay extra,” she says, and this time, her ready smile does not hide her deep concern. The Dutch government has recently paid a one-time energy allowance to low-income households to help them cope with the price hikes, but Heuvelink worries that the $700 she received in recent months will not cover the increase by a long shot.

The first indications from the two biggest gas and electricity providers in the Netherlands show she might be right. They have recently increased the annual amount of their standard contract from $2,000 – about what Heuvelink is paying – to $5,000.

The mother of three has been living on welfare for a long time and is used to getting by on the bare minimum. She takes speedy in-and-out showers – “you get very good at that” – and prefers to cook with the oven rather than the stove as electricity is cheaper than gas. And every night, she disconnects all her electricity plugs to prevent them from guzzling electricity in sleep mode. “Those kinds of things become second nature,” she says, shrugging her shoulders.

‘Mum’s not hungry’

For the optimistic Heuvelink, life has not been easy. She was pregnant with her first child when the child’s father was killed in a traffic accident. The baby was sickly, just like the next child she conceived with a new partner.

Her son and daughter have a rare genetic disorder called Noonan syndrome, which causes conditions from coronary disease to kidney problems. Only when they were diagnosed did she discover that she suffered from the same hereditary disease, which is why she never grew taller than 1.56 metres (5.1 feet) and experiences muscle weakness and heart issues.

Fortunately, her third child did not develop the disorder, but Heuvelink had to travel to clinics in other towns every week for her other two children to receive growth hormone treatments. The transport expenses alone exceeded her social security cheque. Her partner, who had not stuck around, turned out to have run up debts in her name.

Her situation as a single mother with a hereditary disease and unwell children made finding a suitable job almost impossible, which is why she has had to rely on social welfare all her adult life. In 2015, she ended up in debt relief for six years, where social services manage your budget while your debt is being paid off and you get a weekly allowance of about $50.

Heuvelink says she set aside enough money for the occasional meal at McDonald’s but had enough only to pay for her children. “I’d always tell them: ‘Mum’s not hungry,’” she says with a self-effacing smile.

A photo of Hanny Heuvelink holding bowls of cut fruit.
Since October 2019, Heuvelink does volunteer work, serving food at a low-budget restaurant for underprivileged people [Femke van Zeijl/Al Jazeera]

The stigma attached to poverty

Now her kids have left the house she only has herself and her two cats to feed. She buys mostly tinned and canned food because fresh fruit and vegetables are too expensive. For those, she goes to the market on Saturdays at 4:30pm, when the vendors need to get rid of perishables and lower their prices.

When she really cannot postpone the hairdresser’s any more – just a cut, nothing fancy – she will skip a proper dinner for a couple of nights and have bread instead. The same goes for when she is out of toilet paper or detergent. She says a higher utility bill in the future might simply mean she will have to skip more warm meals. “And you can forget about cookies with the coffee,” she says, about the local social custom expected when visitors come to call.

Heuvelink admits that such things used to make her feel embarrassed, because a lifetime on the dole has taught her that there is a stigma attached to poverty. “When people know you are poor, they often assume it is your own fault,” she says. “They think you are stupid.”

But gone are the days of getting under a table or answering the door wearing a coat and pretending to be on her way out when a visitor rang the doorbell in the winter. People now know about Heuvelink’s situation and she no longer hides the fact that she cannot afford to heat her home, she says.

Since October 2019, Heuvelink does volunteer work, serving food at the local Resto van Harte, a low-budget restaurant for the underprivileged. Besides the free dinners she gets as a volunteer, the interaction with people keeps her going and has given her self-confidence, she says. “Those are my happy moments. And in winter, it’s nice and warm.”

Apart from volunteering at the restaurant, she pours coffee and answers the phone line at another charity focused on alleviating silent poverty, called Quiet. Though a rich country in general, Dutch wealth distribution is skewed, with the most affluent 10 percent owning 61 percent of the wealth. On the other hand, the Dutch independent budget institute NIBUD recently raised the alarm that due to inflation and rising utility bills, one in three households in the Netherlands cannot make ends meet.

Meanwhile, Heuvelink is gearing up for winter. Her fleece blanket and the electric cushion that has a little heating element inside, are already on the sofa to snuggle up with when temperatures go down. The heater will remain off. All she can do is hope that this strategy will avoid her gas and electricity bills going through the roof.

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North Korea fires ballistic missile over Japan into Pacific | Military News

Pyongyang’s fifth test in 10 days comes after South Korea and the United States hold military drills.

North Korea has fired a mid-range ballistic missile over Japan, the fifth launch in 10 days, amid expectations that it is gearing up to test its first nuclear weapon in five years.

The missile, detected by the Japanese coast guard and South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, prompted warning alarms in northern Japan with residents advised to take shelter. Train services in northern regions of the country were suspended temporarily.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida condemned what he called a “barbaric” act.

TV Asahi, citing an unnamed government source, said North Korea might have fired an intercontinental ballistic missile and that it fell into the sea some 3,000 km (1,860 miles) from Japan.

There were no further details on the weapon.

Pyongyang has conducted a series of launches around military drills held by the United States and South Korea, which it considers a rehearsal for invasion. The US and South Korea, which staged its own show of advanced weaponry on Saturday to mark its Armed Forces Day, say the exercises are defensive in nature.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said that firing a weapon over Japan represented a “significant escalation” of recent provocations.

“Diplomacy isn’t dead, but talks aren’t about to resume either,” Easley said in comments by email. “Pyongyang is still in the middle of a provocation and testing cycle and is likely waiting until after China’s mid-October Communist Party Congress to conduct an even more significant test.”

North Korea has conducted a record number of weapons tests this year and analysts see the increased pace of testing as an effort to build its capacity for ballistic weapons, which it is banned from testing under UN sanctions.

Officials in South Korea have suggested North Korea might carry out a nuclear test after the end of the Congress in China and before the US holds its mid-term elections in November. Pyongyang last carried out a nuclear test in September 2017.

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As Japan’s Kishida marks 1st year, ‘new capitalism’ is flailing | Business and Economy

Tokyo, Japan – When Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida came to power in October last year, he pledged to foster a “new form of capitalism” that would spur healthy growth alongside a more equal distribution of wealth.

But as Kishida marks one year in office on Tuesday, the Japanese leader’s “new capitalism” is still struggling to get off the ground amid criticism that his signature strategy lacks concrete details or clear targets.

Kishida’s struggles to turn his vision into a coherent economic plan capable of reversing decades of stagnation come as the world’s third-largest economy faces mounting challenges at home and overseas, from rising inflation and a weakening yen to global supply chain snags and the war in Ukraine.

Kishida, a former banker who positioned himself as the only post-war prime minister with experience in the finance industry, is widely seen as an awkward fit for the populist rhetoric he has championed.

“The key point is that Kishida has no strong personal convictions, particularly on economic policy,” Jesper Koll, an economist and executive director at Monex Group in Tokyo, told Al Jazeera,

“Setting up this ‘new capitalism’ slogan, and various teams around it, is effectively just a plan for business as usual.”

“There’s absolutely nothing new or radical in what [Kishida’s] proposed or in what’s going to be coming,” Koll added, describing the Japanese leader’s “steady hand” governance as in accordance with the incremental approach favoured by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party establishment.

The Prime Minister’s Office of Japan did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Japan’s economy is facing a host of challenges including rising inflation, a weakening yen, global supply chain snags and the war in Ukraine [File: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters]

In an address at London’s Guildhall in May, Kishida spoke of capitalism’s “two major transformations”, from laissez-faire to the welfare state and from the welfare state to neoliberalism.

“In both of these transitions, the pendulum swung between two ideas: ‘market or state’, ‘public or private,’” he said. “But the next transition will be to a ‘new form of capitalism’, in which the public and private sectors work together.”

While stressing the need for a “virtuous cycle” of growth and wealth redistribution, Kishida has laid out policy in mostly broad terms, including investment in human capital, greater female participation in the workforce, funding for green initiatives, the digitalisation of government, and support for startups.

Tom Learmouth, who is undertaking doctoral studies on Japan’s economic history at the London School of Economics, said Kishida appeared to be aiming for a return to the industrial strategy of Japan’s post-war, high-growth era when the public and private sectors worked in close collaboration.

During this period of rapid economic growth, Tokyo actively tried to pick winners in industry by directing investment to sectors deemed to be promising, such as automobiles and electronics.

“Trying to resurrect that now, in a very different economic climate – where interest rates are close to zero – it’s difficult to see how the government can exercise much power over the private sector,” Learmouth told Al Jazeera.

Kishida, who criticised his predecessor Shinzo Abe’s “Abenomics” for exacerbating wealth inequality, did weigh concrete reform early in his tenure by proposing to raise Japan’s capital gains tax from the current rate of 20 percent. The Japanese leader, however, backpedalled within days after pushback from the business community and investors.

Eric J Ritter, a professor of economics at Lakeland University Japan, said Kishida’s redistribution agenda had failed to make headway.

“He had to give up on raising capital gains taxes on the rich which could’ve been spent on the poor,” Ritter told Al Jazeera. “Another issue is raising the tax ceiling on working wives who have to start paying tax if they earn above 1.1 million yen [$7,580] a year. This depresses family incomes and female participation.”

Ageing population

More recently, Kishida tried to spur, through corporate tax breaks, a rise in Japan’s long-stagnant wages, which have scarcely risen since the late 1990s and sit well below the OECD average. These efforts have also fallen short of expectations, with real wages continuing to fall as a result of rising import costs.

The plunging yen, which last month hit a 24-year low against the US dollar, has heaped more pressure on retailers and households, causing famously thrifty Japanese consumers to tighten their belts further.

Worse for the long-term health of the economy, Japan’s labour force is shrinking. After years of plunging birth rates, the country already has the world’s oldest population, with 28 percent of residents aged over 65. Japan’s labour market has also been criticised for lacking mobility, which is ranked about half of the OECD average.

Shigeto Nagai, head Japan economist at Oxford Economics, said labour market reforms and social security reforms that provide for the vulnerable working age population as well as the elderly should be key priorities of Kishida’s economic strategy.

“Rigid seniority-based wages under the lifetime employment system have undermined the dynamism of Japanese companies,” Nagai told Al Jazeera, describing the Japanese leader’s strategy so far as “very conceptual and confusing”.

“Making the labour market more flexible and dynamic will enable individual workers to earn more competitive wages reflecting productivity,” Nagai said. “It is [also] essential that the state takes responsibility for providing social security for the working-age population, rather than leaving it to the companies.”

NTT, Japan’s largest telecommunications company, recently announced plans to shift from seniority to performance-based promotion and compensation, raising hopes that corporate peers could be encouraged to follow suit.

While Kishida has struggled to initiate significant economic reform, some analysts say that simply keeping Japan’s economy steady during such a period of global turmoil would be an achievement in itself.

“This is a political world where it’s another day, another crisis,” Koll said. “Having a steady hand, which doesn’t rock the boat, but focuses on incremental changes – maybe that’s the right thing to do in the current environment.”

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US to impose additional ‘costs’ on Iran amid protests, Biden says | Politics News

US president says he is ‘gravely concerned’ by reports of crackdown on protests in Iran over death of Mahsa Amini.

US President Joe Biden has said his administration will impose “further costs” on those responsible for violence against Iranian protesters, who have taken to the streets for more than two weeks in anger over the recent death of a 22-year-old woman in Tehran.

In a statement on Monday evening, Biden said he was “gravely concerned about reports of the intensifying violent crackdown on peaceful protesters in Iran, including students and women, who are demanding their equal rights and basic human dignity”.

“This week, the United States will be imposing further costs on perpetrators of violence against peaceful protestors. We will continue holding Iranian officials accountable and supporting the rights of Iranians to protest freely,” he said.

The ongoing protests in Iran were sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested in mid-September by the country’s so-called morality police for wearing “unsuitable attire” in the capital.

Amini’s death prompted an outpouring of anger against the Iranian government, with demonstrators demanding more civil liberties, including an end to the dress code imposed on women.

Dozens of people are believed to have been killed, while many others also have been arrested, but the authorities have not released an official tally.

On Monday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made his first comments on the anti-government protests, accusing the US and Israel of being responsible for the unrest and seeking to stop Iran’s “progress”.

“I say explicitly that these riots and this insecurity were a design by the US and the occupying, fake Zionist regime [Israel] and those who are paid by them, and some traitorous Iranians abroad helped them,” Khamenei told graduating cadets at a police university in Tehran.

The Iranian authorities also have denied reports that Amini was beaten in custody.

Tehran’s police chief, Brigadier-General Hossein Rahimi, said last month that she was detained for wearing tight trousers and wearing her headscarf improperly, but that claims she was mistreated were “completely false”.

Still, the US and its allies have condemned Iran for Amini’s death and the government’s response to the subsequent protests — and large rallies have been held around the world in solidarity with the Iranian demonstrators.

Last week, Washington sanctioned Iran’s “morality police”, as well as seven leaders of Iranian security organisations that it said “routinely employ violence to suppress peaceful protestors and members of Iranian civil society, political dissidents, women’s rights activists, and members of the Iranian Baha’i community”.

Canada on Monday also sanctioned top Iranian security officials for what it said were “gross human rights violations”.

This included the “systematic persecution of women and in particular, the egregious actions committed by Iran’s so-called ‘Morality Police,’ which led to the death of Mahsa Amini while under their custody”, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government said in a statement.

Biden’s promise to impose more “costs” on Iran comes as talks to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, have stalled.

The multilateral pact, which former US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from in 2018, had seen Iran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for lifting international sanctions against its economy.

While Biden had pledged to restore the deal, indirect talks have so far failed — and the US administration has continued to pile on a variety of sanctions against Tehran.

Late last week, the Biden administration promised to impose financial penalties on Iran on a “regular basis” in an effort to “severely restrict” Iranian oil and petrochemical exports.

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