SOFIA – Bulgaria’s government warned the chronically unemployed on Friday that unlimited social benefits would be cut to persuade them to find jobs and boost economic competitiveness ahead of planned 2007 European Union entry. In the latest belt-tightening reform plan unveiled by Bulgaria’s new Socialist-led government, Labor Minister Emilia Maslarova said she would try to strip payments to tens of thousands of able people who appeared to be shunning work. «There are people who live off this support and do not even bother to look for work,» Maslarova told reporters. «I say, when you refuse to work, when you refuse to requalify and you are in good health, then I refuse to give you social support.» Each household whose income is less than 55 levs ($33.07) per month per person currently qualifies for state support, making up the difference for an unlimited period. The social payments are independent of dole support, which lasts for a maximum of nine months and applies to recent graduates and others not eligible for jobless benefits. Under Maslarova’s plan, which still needs government and parliamentary approval, social aid will last for 18 months. With salaries averaging around 160 euros a month, Bulgaria is second only to Turkey as the poorest EU member or candidate. The Socialists, whose three-party coalition took power in August, have pledged to create 240,000 new jobs and cut the jobless rate to single digits, from just over 10 percent now, to boost the low living standards ahead of joining the bloc. However, urged on by its economically liberal coalition partners and the IMF, the reformed communist party has retreated from its campaign promises. The government has proposed only modest public sector wage increases, postponing plans to raise health and education spending. The about-face has angered public workers and the poor, and on Friday some 2,000 teachers launched a symbolic hunger strike ahead of the belt-tightening moves. Maslarova insisted the reform was necessary, saying that of 150,000 people who enjoyed social benefits, 30-40 percent were young and capable of supporting themselves. «They will get support 18 months, and then they should find work,» she said. She added that she would not strip benefits from mothers or the retired.