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Quality of Life

Bulgaria is now part of the European Union. Its major goals are to gain on the economic performance levels of the other EU Member States, which are integral part of the estimation process of quality of life in every country. Bulgaria’s historical, political, socioeconomic and cultural contexts have meant that its experience is often quite different to those of the EU Member States. Unlike standard of living, quality of life is not a tangible concept and therefore is estimated by combinatorial analysis of both physical and psychological life factors such as: employment, economic resources, housing and local environment, family and household structure, participation in the community, health and healthcare, knowledge/education and training; work-life balance, subjective well-being and perceived quality of society.

The social agenda of the European Commission aims at raising living standards and improving living and working conditions, strengthening social cohesion and combating exclusion, promoting equal opportunities, and safeguarding sustainability. Currently Bulgaria is trying to find a solution to the different problems that it is facing such as: unemployment, aging population, changes of economic gender roles, and environmental problems. Bulgaria is among of the poorest of the EU Member States and needs to appropriate policies to bring the country closer to the EU levels. Over the last two decades Bulgaria has undergone difficult transformations as part of its transition to market economy and democratic political system. The transitional period in the country has been accompanied by a sharp economic decline, increased poverty and unemployment, and a higher level of corruption. In its effort to come closer to the economic levels of the EU Countries, Bulgaria will have to invest more in social development and try to solve its own specific social problems. Currently, the low level of public spending in health, education and social protection is not conductive to social development. In addition, Bulgaria will have to address specific issues such as combating corruption and introducing reforms of the justice system and of public administration, in order to ensure proper enforcement of the law.

Although quality of life is not a criterion for membership in the EU, research in this comprehensive sphere contributes to understanding the disparities in the various realms of peoples’ lives and to identifying appropriate measures that are needed in order to achieve social cohesion at European level.

The accession of Bulgaria opens new opportunities for Europe, but also significant
challenges. The 27 EU Member States will become even more heterogeneous in terms of cultures, political traditions, level of economic development and living conditions. There are large discrepancies in quality of life between Bulgaria and the EU27, especially with regard to material living conditions, quality of employment and working conditions, health and subjective well-being. However, in other domains of quality of life, smaller differences emerge between the two country groups, such as in relation to social support networks and certain indicators on housing. Furthermore, Bulgaria, in many quality of life aspects, comes closer to either the six low income EU countries (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia)
or the EU25. Thus, it offers different opportunities and challenges in terms of integration in the EU.

ECONOMIC SITUATION

The per capita GDP, as one of the key macroeconomic indicators, shows that Bulgaria has the lowest level of economic output among all 27 countries studied. Consequently, citizens of Bulgaria also have the lowest standard of living. The analysis found that the gap in standard of living between it and the EU average is even wider than that for macro indicators (per capita GDP). High economic growth, which has been characteristic of the Bulgaria in the recent years, has not translated into a consequent increase of income at household level.

The average level of net (equivalised) household income in Bulgaria in 2003 was under EUR 300 (PPP) per month. This represents only about a half of the income level in the six low income EU countries and less than a third of the EU25 average. In addition to a generally low level of household income, Bulgaria is characterized by substantial income inequality. Here, the average income in the highest income quartile is 5.6 times higher than that in the lowest income quartile; while in Bulgaria, the average income in the highest income quartile is four times higher than that in the lowest income quartile. The average monthly household income in the poorest quartile in both candidate countries was around EUR 100, which is very low in EU terms.

Unemployed people and their families, as well as low skilled people, are the groups most at risk of income poverty. This indicates that social inclusion and anti-poverty policies should rely much more on labour activation measures, in particular on facilitation of job creation and increasing employability through education and training. Apart from the aforementioned groups, pensioners (single people and couples over 65 years of age) are also under increased risk of income poverty, particularly in Bulgaria. This group needs to be targeted by another set of policy measures – passive measures such as social transfers and income support – that should ease their financial problems and help their social inclusion.

In comparison with the six low income EU countries, and in particular with the EU25 as a whole, Bulgaria is characterised by a high degree of lifestyle deprivation, with many people being unable to meet basic needs such as keeping the home adequately warm, having a meal with meat every second day, replacing worn-out furniture and buying clothes, taking a week’s holiday away from home or having friends over for a drink or meal at least once a month. The situation in this respect is particularly difficult for unemployed people and those living in rural areas.

The overall economic conditions also influence the extent of household production of food. In Bulgaria, more than half of the people grow crops or keep livestock in order to meet basic needs. However, this type of subsistence agriculture represents a limited and short-term solution to difficult living conditions. While it has proved to be a useful strategy in helping people to survive during the arduous transition years, it cannot be considered a long-term approach for development in these countries. The situation in the lowest income quartile is even more acute, with 64% of people in Bulgaria (75% of people in Romania) relying on own food production.

Despite the fact that many citizens have developed their own strategies to cope with economic strain, some 61% of the citizens in Bulgaria have difficulties in making ends meet. In this respect, Bulgaria is in a much worse situation than the six low income EU countries; it is also far above the EU25 average (15%) in relation to perceived economic strain. Such disparities represent a major challenge for policymakers, particularly in relation to Bulgaria where a majority of people live in difficult economic circumstances and feel that they are poor. In particular, the poor standard of living of people in the lowest income quartile represents a key challenge.

HOUSING AND LOCAL ENVIRONMENT

As in most of the other former communist countries, home ownership is very common in Bulgaria. This is largely the result of the privatization of social housing in the 1990s, which enabled people to become home owners instead of remaining as tenants. In Bulgaria, 85% of the population now live in their own home, compared with 62% of the population in the EU25 and 75% of the population in the six low income EU countries. In addition, a large majority of householders in Bulgaria own their home without any mortgage or loans, a factor which no doubt enables people to survive on smaller incomes.

In relation to the size of dwellings, people in Bulgaria have a significantly larger living space than citizens in the six low income EU countries have: in Bulgaria, the average number of rooms per person is 1.2 rooms, compared with an average of one room per person in the six lower income EU countries. As to the distribution of living space, it is not very evident in Bulgaria whether the distribution is equal.

In general, housing quality is relatively low. A shortage of space, in particular, is a frequently reported problem in Bulgaria, with 28% of respondents citing this problem. In addition, houses are reportedly less comfortable and neighbourhoods less safe. The situation in relation to quality of housing is not the worst in Europe: it is significantly worse in Romania: in Romania, 30% of households have problems with rotting windows (compared with 21% in Bulgaria), 29% have problems with damp and leaks (compared with 25% in Bulgaria), while 40% of households have no indoor flushing toilet (compared with 29% in Bulgaria).

With regard to environmental problems, a clear difference emerges between the findings for Bulgaria, on the one hand, and the averages for the six low income EU countries and the EU25 on the other. People in Bulgaria complain much more frequently about air pollution, particularly those living in urban areas. In Bulgaria especially, almost one third of the respondents (20% of those living in rural areas and 40% living in urban areas) complain about poor water quality. Air and water pollution are most likely to compound the relatively poor health conditions of the population in Bulgaria and therefore require a rapid policy response. In relation to housing and the local environment, particularly in terms of the latter, Bulgaria should learn from the positive experiences of the EU Member States.

EMPLOYMENT AND TRAINING


The early 1990s were characterised by a relatively high unemployment rate in Bulgaria. From 2000 onwards, the situation started to improve. Since 2003, the unemployment rate has stabilized, declining to 8% in Bulgaria, with very little difference between the sexes in this respect. However, the big challenge for Bulgaria, will be to reduce the high level of long-term unemployment particularly among young people, those with low skill levels and older people. This will require the careful selection, targeting and effective implementation of specific measures arising from labour activation policies.

The sharp decrease in the unemployment rate in the last four to five years is attributed to the strong economic growth and the creation of new jobs, particularly in the private sector, but it is also related to the relatively high level of emigration to EU Member States and other countries. Since labour emigration is very selective in terms of age and education of the workforce (the ‘brain drain’ and ‘skills drain’), large-scale emigration can result in serious disturbances to the domestic labour supply. Bulgaria should therefore pay greater attention to this issue and develop policies aimed at minimising the negative macroeconomic, demographic and social effects of emigration.

Despite the strong economic growth in recent years, Bulgaria still relatively low overall employment rates - 52% – between five and 10 percentage points below the EU25 average. In Bulgaria, the female employment rate is just below 50% and is one of the lowest in Europe. The employment rate of older workers is also below the EU average. Overall therefore, labour market participation in Bulgaria is quite low and should be a key policy concern. Creating new employment opportunities is recognised as one of the major factors for facilitating social inclusion and cohesion. For this reason, increasing the labour participation rates of women and older people in particular, by 2010, represents one of the major objectives of EU social policy. However, this will not be an easy task for Bulgaria because of the relatively large proportion of total employment that is found in the agricultural sector (10%). In the medium term, EU agricultural policy will put serious pressure on employment opportunities in the non-competitive farming sector, possibly leading to a large labour surplus in rural areas in particular.

On average, people in Bulgaria work longer hours than people in the EU25. Low wage levels and inflexible working time arrangements are seen as significant contributory factors in this context. For example, because of the low wage levels, people often try to increase their earnings by having a second job. Another reason is the relatively high level of employment in the informal economy, which is characterised by low pay, poor working conditions, the absence of flexible working time arrangements, high job insecurity and a low level of protection for employees in relation to working time. Therefore, employment in the informal economy is an area where much greater regulation and policy intervention is needed.

The perceived quality of jobs in Bulgaria– measured by pay levels, degree of autonomy at work and prospects for career advancement – is lower than that of the six low income EU countries and much lower than the EU25 average. In addition, the level of perceived job insecurity is very high – 40% of employees believe that they might lose their job within the next six months. Along with the poor rights in relation to job protection and the large extent of the informal sector, the feeling of insecurity also seems to have been influenced by the unsettling experiences associated with the privatisation of the socialist economy, when thousands of jobs were lost.

In relation to training, the data indicate that only 5% of employees in Bulgaria an have undertaken training or participated in a course of some kind; this is very low compared with the 18% average for the six low income EU countries and the EU25 average of 21%. In fact, these figures are a significant cause for concern since investing in people through the provision of better education opportunities, more training and lifelong learning is seen as a key determinant for the competitiveness of EU economies. It is also considered an important factor for enabling people to access good quality jobs which, in turn, leads to greater social inclusion and increased cohesion. For all of these reasons, policymakers in Bulgaria should address these issues in a more proactive way and aim to create conditions that will promote and facilitate different forms of investment in human capital.

HOUSEHOLD STRUCTURE AND FAMILY RELATIONS

Bulgarians live in relatively large households with an average of 2.92 persons per household, compared with the EU25 average of 2.46 persons per household. There is also a relatively high proportion of multi-generational households Bulgaria, where children, parents and grandparents live in the same house. Conversely, the proportion of single-person households is low compared with the EU level. Household patterns are determined by cultural but also social and economic factors. Due to the high unemployment levels and low levels of pay, many young people in Bulgaria cannot afford to live independently and therefore remain for longer in the parental home, compared with their counterparts in western European countries. Factors strongly contributing to the relatively high proportion of multi-generational households in Bulgaria are housing problems and lack of childcare facilities especially for young parents, along with the low level of remuneration in the pensions of older people. Essentially, larger families are better able to cope with economic problems because of the support offered by family members during difficult times.

Intergenerational solidarity among families in Bulgaria is also manifested in people’s care for children and elderly persons; caring activities are performed by the family to a greater extent than in the six low income EU countries and the EU25. While elderly people are usually cared for by the family, at the same time, older people also play a very active role in caring for children. This form of support partly compensates for the poorly developed social services.

Housework, childcare and care of elderly family members are tasks that are usually carried out within the household, mostly by women. Among all EU countries, Romania ranks first in terms of the highest number of daily hours devoted to housework. Bulgaria scores somewhat lower in relation to this indicator and shows a rate closer to the average of the six low income EU countries. The number of hours devoted to childcare and care of elderly people is also higher in Romania. Economic constraints on the one hand, and a lack of private and public services on the other, are considered to be the major reasons compelling family members to take responsibility for such tasks. In many cases, particularly in relation to women, these responsibilities prevent people from participating in the labour market. Therefore, ensuring better access to and developing different forms of childcare and elderly care services should be high on the agenda for policymakers in Bulgaria.

Generally, family is the main source of social integration and support. People rely first and foremost on family members in difficult situations like illness, depression, or when in need of advice. Bulgaria differs from other European countries with regard to the weaker dependence on friends in comparison with the EU25, displaying a social life characterised by relationships within primary groups and less developed social networks in the society.

WORK-LIFE BALANCE

Reconciling work and family life is an important issue on the EU policy agenda, which aims at increasing women’s participation in the labour market, as well as enabling family care of children or dependent adults. In Bulgaria, reconciling these two aspects of life is particularly difficult, given the unusually long hours that people work. Women in particular face a high burden in this respect. The proportion of women working more than 48 hours a week is close to the respective proportion of men; however, in the EU25, twice as many men than women work long hours each week. At the same time, due to the distribution of roles within the family, women in Bulgaria also devote more time to housework than men do and more often have responsibility for childcare and care of elderly people. In order to change this pattern and to increase the labour participation of women, the government should guarantee stronger support for the provision of different care services. They should also make greater efforts to develop and implement flexible working time arrangements that enable women to better combine their family responsibilities and their professional careers.

The data confirms that balancing work, family and social commitments represents a difficult task in Bulgaria. More than a third of the people in Bulgaria are too tired after coming home from work to carry out any household tasks – a level that is above the average of the six lower income EU countries and higher again than the EU25 average. Similarly, a higher proportion of people in Bulgaria, compared with the six lower income EU countries and the EU25 as a whole, report that they have difficulties fulfilling family responsibilities because of spending too much time at work. In such a context, it is easier to understand why people in Bulgaria complain more frequently about not having enough time for social contacts, hobbies and personal interests, compared with people in any of the EU Member States.

The difficulties experienced in maintaining a work–life balance have a large impact on people’s satisfaction with their work, family and personal lives – all of which are important dimensions of quality of life. The social partners in Bulgaria should therefore consider creating and offering new possibilities for balancing family, social and work life. Employees should be offered greater choice in setting their work schedules through the introduction of more flexible working time arrangements. Women should be given more opportunities to enter or remain in the labour market, for example through the provision of more and better quality care services. Labour market regulations and social security provisions should ensure that people have the opportunity to return to full-time work in order to reduce the risk of poverty in old age. Although Bulgaria has already taken steps in this direction, greater efforts need to be made to increase the social acceptance and take-up of flexible working time options and to create conditions more conducive to job and income security. Failure to do so may hinder the efforts aimed at increasing labour market participation and at improving people’s overall quality of life.

HEALTH AND HEALTHCARE

Being in good health is an essential precondition for a high quality of life. The health status of people living in Bulgaria is below the EU25 average. A poor health status is reported by 15% of the people – about twice the proportion of the EU25 average. Moreover, a quarter of the total adult population in Bulgaria report that they have a longstanding illness or disability that prevents them to some extent from leading an active and independent life. These findings on subjective health status correspond fully with objective indicators on health: Bulgaria has a lower life expectancy than any of the EU25 countries – with the exception of Latvia – and among the highest infant mortality rates.

Elderly citizens in Bulgaria most often report a poor health status. Low income groups,
unemployed people, those with a poor education and people living in urban areas are also at increased risk of having health problems. With the exception of the urban population, the level of satisfaction with personal health in all of the aforementioned groups is also below the national average.

In relation to access to health services, people living in Bulgaria cite more problems
accessing such services than people in the EU do in general. Bulgarians complain most about the distance to a doctor’s office and about the delay in getting an appointment: two out of five Bulgarians who needed medical services reported that they found it ‘very difficult’ to access medical care from the point of view of these two aspects. One third of the respondents in Bulgaria cited difficulties in accessing health services due to the high cost involved. This figure is among the highest in the EU25.

The perceived quality of health services in Bulgaria is much lower than that of the EU average score of 6.2. At just 3.5 points (on a scale of one to 10, where one means very poor quality and 10 means very high quality), Bulgaria scored the lowest of all the countries studied, underlining the need for a rapid response by all the relevant actors in this country to improve the quality of health services. Given the budgetary constraints of both of these countries and the restrictions on public spending recommended by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, improving the quality of health services will not be an easy task. Nevertheless, a key priority for Bulgaria in the coming years should be to enhance access to health protection and to ensure that all citizens have access to basic medical services. Special schemes should also be developed for the most vulnerable groups in society, such as children, elderly people, and those on low incomes. In addition, a greater focus should be placed on health prevention programs and on health education in the longer term.

SUBJECTIVE WELL-BEING

People living in Bulgaria have among the lowest standards of living of all the EU countries. Lower living standards, in turn, negatively affect people’s subjective feelings about their lives as a whole and about various aspects of their lives. In Bulgaria in particular, people report low levels of subjective well-being. Bulgaria lags behind the older EU Member States in relation to subjective well-being, thus mirroring the existing disparities in relation to objective living conditions such as: financial situation, standard of living, working conditions, time use, health and quality of society.

Life satisfaction is generally regarded as the final output of all circumstances that people experience in their lives. In Bulgaria, the score for life satisfaction is the lowest among all the countries analysed, at just 4.5 points (on a scale of one to 10, where one means very dissatisfied and 10 means very satisfied), compared with an average score of six points for the six low income EU countries and an average of 7.1 points for the EU25. In Romania, two-thirds of people are optimistic about the future, while in Bulgaria less than half (47%) of the citizens are optimistic about their future.

In relation to people’s experiences and expectations, it is worthwhile referring to the recent history of Bulgaria. Although it had long-term experiences of communism, it took slightly different paths in this respect to Romania. Bulgaria experienced a less strict communist regime, with a rather painless departure from its autocratic past; as a result, it had a better starting point in relation to its economic transition compared with Romania. However, this transition proved to be extremely difficult and involved economic crises that led to high social costs which also impacted negatively on individuals themselves. Thus, transition in Bulgaria was largely far more difficult than expected and led to a sharp deterioration in living conditions, including increased job insecurity, unemployment and poverty. In this sense therefore, the low level of subjective well-being in Bulgaria can be linked to the conditions and feelings of disappointment that people experienced following transition. Conversely, Romania was ruled by one of the most severe communist regimes in east Europe; in contrast with Bulgaria, the overthrow of this autocratic system was traumatic and the starting point to transition was rather low compared with most former communist countries - the reason why people’s subjective well-being is higher in Romania than in Bulgaria. Nevertheless, certain groups of people are relatively more disadvantaged in terms of subjective well-being. For example, the level of life satisfaction among unemployed people, those on low incomes, and people with low skill levels is below the national average. However, the lowest figures in this respect are to be found among older people – a clear signal that policymakers need to identify measures aimed at this particular target group. Life circumstances for many people in this group are very negative. The economic transition has impacted on this category by interrupting their work biographies and disrupting their way of life, while other features like the sharp drop in incomes, poor health, social isolation, and the lack of services for elderly people have all adversely affected their subjective well-being.

PERCEIVED QUALITY OF SOCIETY

Determining the quality of the social context in which people live complements the picture of people’s objective living conditions and subjective well-being. The conditions in the different societies influence people’s life strategies and impact decisively on the quality of their lives. For instance, countries in which citizens have little trust in others, where there is poor social capital, where people perceive tensions between various groups, and where public services are of low quality are not likely to encourage positive life strategies.

In Bulgaria, people’s perception of the quality of society is extremely low: at individual level, people have little trust in others, often feel alienated and lost in society, perceive their own communities as not being very safe and evaluate the quality of social services as being very low. This perception largely corresponds with the generally low scores for all subjective indicators in Bulgaria. Bulgaria is still far behind the EU in this respect, where a much lower proportion of citizens feel alienated, lost or unsafe, and where the quality of social and health services is perceived to be much better.

More specifically, people in Bulgaria are concerned about tensions in society, particularly tensions that reflect traditional social divisions, for example between rich and poor people, and between management and workers. These tensions are related to the increased income inequalities and material polarisation experienced. Reducing the gap between rich and poor people therefore constitutes one of the key challenges for Bulgaria.
However, in relation to tensions between different ethnic groups, Bulgarians do not perceive this to be a serious issue. Only 13% of the Bulgarians perceived a lot of tensions between ethnic groups; with the exception of Lithuania where a smaller proportion of 10% cited such tensions, the figure for Bulgaria represents the lowest figure among the EU countries.

The perceived low quality of health and social services also reflects the low level of government spending in these areas. In Bulgaria, the quality of education and public transport is also perceived as being relatively low. Despite improvements in these services in recent years, much work remains to be done in this area. One of the big challenges for the government in Bulgaria is to reduce the extensive informal sector. A high degree of tax evasion in the informal economy makes it far more difficult to finance the necessary reforms in the social security system, and in education and health, and to improve the overall quality of these services.

A low evaluation of the quality of society in Bulgaria has its roots in the economic,
social and political context. The country’s transition has led to profound changes in economic and social structures, which are often associated with negative processes such
as a weakening of social control, increased crime, widespread corruption, and greater income inequalities and polarisation. All of these factors, in turn, seem to have affected the feelings of people in Bulgaria in relation to the quality of the society in which they live. Many people feel marginalised or disoriented, see their lives as being shaped by factors that are outside of their own control, often feel unsafe, and perceive their country as being without normal social standards. While there are no simple solutions to these problems, it is likely that creating certain conditions – such as the sustainable functioning of the market economy, more rapid economic growth, job creation, the modernisation of social services, a more socially acceptable redistribution of income and better law enforcement – will contribute to a better quality of society and to the improved quality of life of the citizens of Bulgaria.

Source: European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions
 


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Melnik, the smallest town in Bulgaria, is located in Blagoevgrad district. It is a town-museum having 96 buildings pronounced for cultural monuments. Melnik is also famous for its wine made of unique varieties of grapes, and for the sand and limestone pyramids - exceptional geographical structures for the territory of Bulgaria.

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