Income and welfare – the forgotten debate?

 

EAPN Ireland Election Blog No. 4

By Paul Ginnell, Policy Officer, EAPN Ireland

“Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.” Nelson Mandela

This quote opens EAPN Ireland’s recent poverty briefing and its proposals to candidates and political parties in the general election. Just as political decisions in the past have helped create poverty, the next Dáil and Government have the opportunity and responsibility to make the decisions to ensure no-one in this country has to endure the burden and the stigma of living in a situation that it not of their making.

Poverty is a very real experience for many people in Ireland. Three quarters of a million people, including around 132,000 children, are at risk of poverty and so live on less than €209 per week. Almost one in every ten people live in material deprivation, meaning that they cannot afford two of eleven basic necessities. This includes one fifth of those at work.

During the election campaign we have heard some of the candidates and parties outline what they will do to tackle poverty. There has been some important discussion of how to provide adequate services and how to support people to get decent jobs. However, we have heard little if any discussion on our social welfare levels. Our basic social welfare levels, particularly for those of working age, must be set at a level which keeps people in poverty. Of course, if someone on social welfare can get a decent job this can help them out of poverty. But the reality is that in the short or long term, there will always be people who are dependent on social welfare. This is because we will always have people who are in vulnerable situations in their lives because of caring responsibilities, a disability or illness, or because they are looking for work.CSO figures

However, for those of working age, our main social welfare rates are now €188 per week, down from €204.30 in 2009 and at a level which is €20 per week below the poverty line. According to the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice  198 of 214 urban family types which are dependent on social welfare will not be able to meet a minimum essential standard of living in 2016.

Is this really the type of society we want, where we effectively condemn hundreds of thousands of people to live a life of poverty? I don’t think so. It breaches their human rights and it shames us as a society.

So why do we allow it, and why is there no public outcry or even little public debate about it?

Maybe it is because powerful people in our society look on people who are dependent on social welfare as some sort of drain on our society, while the rest of us are living “respectable and hard-working” lives? There is a widespread view, based on very selective examples in the media but not born out in our experience, that many people who are happy to live on social welfare when they could be looking for a job. These exceptional examples are used to write off everyone else.

Maybe it is because we think that they brought poverty on themselves, so “why should we be looking after them?” Do we think this is an okay attitude for people with disabilities or carers? Or have we not matured as a nation in our understanding of those who are parenting alone?  Over 43% of those who are fully dependent on unemployment payments have been on them for less than one year and many more for less than two years. The vast majority of those who have been unemployed are doing everything in their power to get work and suffer.

Maybe it is because the right of people to have a decent income is seen as less important than the fear that if social welfare levels are too high it will not motivate people to look for work. However, does this apply to those with a disability or illness or in a caring role? If so, then for those whose situation might allow them to work, even for a few hours, it is certainly not simply about the level of their social welfare support but there are another range of issues to be addressed in terms of services and supports.

If we are talking about those on unemployment payments then there is evidence that for the majority of people social welfare rates do not replace the income people can get for work and does not disincentive them. Even for those where secondary benefits, such as housing supports, mean that income from social welfare might be close to what those people can get from work the majority of people are still motivated to get a job. Of course this also relates to the issues of decent pay from work and how people can retain secondary benefits as they move from welfare to work.

As part of this discussion we also need to understand how we can justify paying lower social welfare rates to those under 26 years of age, as a form of motivation to stay in the labour market, and €19.10 to asylum seekers in direct provision, often for many years, with no opportunity for them to get a job.

If we really want to have a discussion in this election as to what type of society we want then we need to have a mature and informed discussion about how we look after those in our society who are the most vulnerable or at a vulnerable time in their live. How we set our welfare supports so that they are adequate to keep people out of poverty and allows them to have a decent life needs to be part of the wider discussion on creating a fairer and more equal society.

For more background, see the papers from the European Minimum Income Network (an alliance led by EAPN Europe).

Within that project, there were two important Irish reports:

“… an adequate and effective minimum income system is essential for the achievement of a sustainable recovery and a more inclusive society. This is not just about the amount of money in people’s pockets but about the buying power of that money.

“We need to strengthen our minimum income scheme to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to remain active in society, reconnect to the world of work and live in dignity.  

“Inadequate minimum income schemes trap people in poverty and lead to greater social, health and economic costs for individuals and society. Inadequate schemes may help in addressing very basic needs in the short term, but they can contribute to locking people in a cycle of dependency without adequate means to access opportunities or to fully participate in society.

“Research has shown that shame accompanies poverty, and this has a disabling effect on people’s capacity to seek work and progress their lives. Austerity measures taken by Government during the crisis have had a very negative effect on those on minimum income schemes in Ireland, through more stringent means testing, changes to eligibility criteria and in some cases cuts in rates.

“Adequate and effective schemes help reduce inequality, which benefits the whole society. It is widely accepted that more equal societies are better for everyone, not just then poorest, and are more stable than more unequal societies.

“They have a high return on investment, while the cost of not investing has enormous immediate impacts for the individuals concerned and long term costs for society.

“High-level social protection systems act as ‘economic stabilisers’. Within the European Union, countries with high-level social protection systems have been best placed to resist the negative impacts of the recent crisis….”

 

The

The Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice has developed the most comprehensive approach to defining a minimum essential standard of living for Ireland.

minimum essential standard of living for Ireland.

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