Amsterdam officials are experimenting with a possible solution to the city's problem with chronic alcoholics: put them to work and pay them in beer.
The city is working with a charity in hopes that the initiative will improve the neighborhood and give alcoholics a chance to better their lives, reported the Associated Press. The workers pick up trash in exchange for a daily package that includes a meal, five beers, tobacco and 10 euros ($13.55). All they have to do is show up at 9am three days a week and make it through the morning and afternoon shifts.
The total worth of the package – $25.75 – is less than the Netherlands' minimum wage, but it's better than nothing for people with a crippling addiction and without job prospects. Members of the nonprofit Rainbow Group Foundation hope the positive approach will motivate their participants to rethink their lives and renew within them a sense of purpose.
Proud to be working
"I'm not proud of being an alcoholic, but I am proud to have a job again," Fred Schiphorst, one such beneficiary, told the New York Times. Before he was given the unusual opportunity, Schiphorst spent a decade out of work because of a back injury and his alcoholism.
Reactions to the program have been mixed in the Netherlands.
Critics of the pilot program say it enables the workers by funding their habit. Conservative members of the Amsterdam City Council dismissed what they called "the beer project" as a waste of government money and an attempt to further liberalize a city known for its extensive marijuana culture and famous red-light district, according to the NYT account.
"For a lot of politicians it was really difficult to accept, 'So you are giving alcohol?'" Amsterdam East district mayor Fatima Elatik told AP. "No, I am giving people a sense of perspective, even a sense of belonging. A sense of feeling that they are OK and that we need them and that we validate them and we don't ostracize our people, because these are people that live in our district."
Cheaper than enforcement
The program's low cost is attractive compared with the price tag of previous efforts. Elatik, a member of the left-leaning Labor party, estimates that to date, the program has cost less than $130,000. Most of the budget came from donations, the rest from the city. The city's more oppressive (and less successful) solutions – increasing police patrols and temporarily banning alcohol in the park for all visitors – cost Amsterdam an annual $1.3 million.
Amsterdam has a history of implementing progressive fixes to social problems. The country legalized prostitution in the 1600s, and designated a red-light district to keep activities contained. It relaxed its stance on recreational marijuana use in the 1970s and instituted a program to distribute clean needles to heroin addicts in the 1980s and 1990s to curb the spread of HIV. The new strategy is reminiscent of the one used to help heroin addicts, who are given free needles and methadone in a controlled environment. The United States has similar programs for heroin addicts.
"I think now that we are only successful when we get them to drink less during the day and give them something to think about what they want to do with their lives," Holterman told AP. "This is a start to go toward other projects and maybe another kind of job."
The work-for-beer program already has a waiting list of eager candidates.