A Belgian school leaver with a diploma can receive benefits of around €900 ($1,200) a month after a year of unemployment. The minimum wage of €1,400 a month before tax, which Ms. De Cock earns, is one of the world’s highest.
After deductions, there’s only about a €150 difference between unemployment benefit and the pay for low-skilled work, said Peter Stappaerts, director of Werkhaven, a job scheme in Antwerp. “So unfortunately it is easier to stay home and collect benefits.” On top of this, young mothers have an added disincentive: To work, they have to pay for childcare.
Over the past year, riots in Britain and France have been linked with the frustration of unemployment. There has also been rioting in Antwerp and Brussels. Earlier this year, protesters hurled bins and metal barriers at a police station in a poor area of Brussels after a Muslim woman was arrested for refusing to remove a face veil, banned in Belgium.
“We are looking at the emergence of a generation of young people who have always been unemployed,” said Patrick Manelickx, the head of Brussels-based youth centre JES that trains youngsters and tries to get them into work.
“There is a feeling of frustration, of anger among many of them, that they don’t have a future,” he said.
The European Commission is pushing the bloc’s 27 countries to set up schemes to offer training or further study to any young person who does not find a job within four months of leaving school. Some countries have set aside funds to support this.
Governments elsewhere have moved to reform benefits or education, and encourage youth employment with lower taxes and less job security. In France, the government is fast-tracking a job-creation scheme.
But Belgium is forcing through around €13-billion in budget cuts this year and says it cannot afford such a plan, although it may reform its education system. Flanders’ education minister Mr. Smet wants to make unemployment benefits dependent on trying to find work or study. “I am all for solidarity in our society,” he said. “But you can’t have something for nothing.”
Ms. Ahidar’s new job as a driver gives her hope of starting her own taxi business ferrying Antwerp’s elderly about. But she cannot get bank financing.
“I had the character to keep looking for work,” Ms. Ahidar said. “Others didn’t and ended up in crime, and the job situation is so bad that you start to understand why.”